No means no !

6 June 2016

No means no !

In a referendum on 6th April the Netherlands gave a clear ‘no’ to the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. The government now appears to be interpreting this clear negative as offering a great deal more room for manoeuvre.

How clear would you like it? On April 6th 61.1% of the voters gave the thumbs down to the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. In only 21 of 390 local authority districts was there a majority in favour. “This excellent result was to a large degree down to the work of thousands of SP activists who conducted a campaign in the weeks leading up to the vote. Together we managed to persuade people that a no vote was better for the Netherlands and for Ukraine,” said SP leader Emile Roemer the day after the referendum.

The day after the referendum, nota bene. For some parties this evidently made for a different world to the one which existed the day before the referendum. “The Labour Party said on 5th April that it would follow the referendum’s result,” says SP Member of Parliament and spokesman on EU affairs Harry van Bommel. “And on 7th April, one day after the referendum, they suddenly announced that Prime Minister Rutte ‘must be given the space to negotiate.’ That means therefore: don’t follow the result.” Van Bommel presented a motion in Parliament to the effect that the government must withdraw support from the treaty as soon as possible. The resolution, however, just failed to find a majority, with the VVD – the slightly larger, centre-right component of the government – and all but one PvdA (Labour Party) Member, as well as two independents – voting against. So now you have to ask yourself what “space to negotiate” means. How much space? And what will be the subject of these negotiations? After all, there is only one way to interpret the result, as a ‘no’ to the Association Agreement with Ukraine. And not a bit of a ‘no’. Simply a ‘no’.

Loss of vision
During the parliamentary debate on 14th April, Prime Minister Rutte informed the House that in his view the definition of the word ‘no’ is elastic. This is how he put it: “There’s an opportunity indeed to do something with that ‘no’ and for that reason I’m saying cautiously not that a ‘no’ isn’t in the interests of the Netherlands, but that a ‘no’ isn’t at this moment in the interests of the Netherlands.” With this cryptic crossword-puzzle reasoning he explained his wish to postpone a decision not to ratify the Association Agreement on behalf of the Netherlands.

“It’s scandalous,” says Van Bommel. “Rutte wants to wait until after June 23rd, the day on which the UK holds its referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU. Say that the British vote to leave. Then you’ll have an entirely different debate. Dutch voters didn’t say “wait until after the British referendum and then look at what adjustments are needed. I repeat: the voters delivered a clear ‘no’.” Van Bommel suspects moreover that Rutte wants to prevent a loss of ‘vision’ in Brussels, given that the Netherlands currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency. That could tally with his once again rather vague remark during the debate that he had noted a certain ‘discomfort in Brussels,’ a discomfort which he put down to the fact that “people were concerned over the effects of the discussion on the British referendum.” And by “people”, the Prime Minister meant “people in (national) capitals and in the European Commission.”

These people will want to allow Rutte, the VVD and the Labour Party to prevail over the expressed will of the Dutch voters. ‘Betrayal’, Harry van Bommel calls it. But this betrayal could have unpleasant consequences. Next year sees a general election. There seems therefore to be only one way for these parties to escape the self-imposed stranglehold of those people in national capitals and in the European Commission, and that is to accept that ‘no’ has no other meaning than ‘no’.

Text by Rob Janssen. This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the May 2016 edition of the SP monthly Tribune.

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