‘Killing the Referendum’

25 January 2017

‘Killing the Referendum’

The result of last year’s consultative referendum was clear: 61% of those voting said ‘no’. That ‘no’ was, just before Christmas, in no time at all bent out of shape by a majority in Parliament, somehow becoming a ‘yes’.

By Ron Janssen

Some have called it an insignificant appendix that changes nothing. Others as being like a baby’s dummy, or comforter, simply there to pacify. Prime Minister Mark Rutte himself referred to his advice note, just three sides of A4 in length, in which in his own estimation he answered the objections of those who voted ‘no’, as a ‘legal declaration’. The note was sent to Parliament just before Christmas. SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel’s contribution to the ensuing debate was not one in which he pulled his punches. “Is this democracy?” he asked, “That’s what the man and woman in the street will be asking. The government asks the people for advice, and before the vote a majority in Parliament said they would respect the vote, and the next thing you know the treaty has simply gone through, without a single letter being changed.” According to Van Bommel, the guarantees in Rutte’s declaration – that there is no promise of future EU membership, no collective security guarantees, no additional labour migration, no additional financial aid, and more efforts to combat corruption – mean nothing. “EU membership will in time certainly be brought closer because the Association Agreement will, looked at from an economic and political point of view, integrate Ukraine increasingly into Europe. Take the point about labour migration. I know very well that the treaty doesn’t facilitate free movement, because Ukraine still isn’t part of the European Union or the Schengen. Visa-free travel will come closer, however, and partly as a result of this treaty. The declaration makes absolutely no difference to that. When it comes to military support I would point to Article 453 of the treaty, in which intensified military cooperation is laid down in black and white. As for financial aid, the treaty states that Ukraine will come under consideration.

“But concern about the fight against corruption is perhaps the trickiest issue. Last year it emerged that corruption was the most important motive for people voting against the treaty. It sounds of course sympathetic, a declaration in which you once again underline the importance of the fight against corruption. But then it turns out that Ukraine, which has completely responsibility for combatting corruption, is not required to sign the declaration! That’s completely unbelievable. As far as the SP is concerned, there is and remains only one possible choice which really does justice to the result of the referendum. And that is to present Parliament with a law withdrawing from the treaty. No meant no, and still means no.”

Doing the splits

The SP voted against Rutte’s declaration along with four other opposition parties, the Party of the Animals, the ‘grey party’ 50Plus, the centre-right CDA and the far right PVV, seeing the declaration as no more than an excuse for, despite the referendum, voting to approve the Association Agreement with Ukraine. The two governing parties, the right-wing VVD and the centre-left Labour Party, voted in favour, as did the centre-left Green Left and the centrist D66.

So it seems from all this that the Netherlands will simply sign the Association Agreement. In the Senate, which must also give the green light to the treaty, it appears that in the end, with the support of the CDA group, which is certainly in favour, there will be a majority for, which will clear the way for the measure.

That raises the question of how that actually can be. Because did parties such as D66 and the Green Left not state, loudly and often, that the result must be respected, even if it did not suit them? Did they not fervently hope that, so close to March’s general election, Rutte might be manoeuvred into doing the splits? Green Left leader Jesse Klaver, at the end of October, had this to say: “I see for the moment insufficient reason to ignore the advice of the voters.” Yet now, a few months later, it seems that he has done the splits himself, saying ‘no’, but then when push comes to shove saying ‘yes’. Or worse still, shamelessly rejecting the voters’ decision, with an election looming. How these parties can explain that to the voters is naturally not something which Harry van Bommel or anyone in the SP is concerned about. He does nevertheless note that “in this way not only is the electorate’s no-vote being brushed aside, but the referendum in general is being killed stone dead.”

In 2005 a large majority of Dutch voters, and a smaller yet still clear majority of the French electorate, voted against the European Constitution. Two years later its replacement , the Lisbon Treaty, was signed by the governments of both countries. And the precise differences between Constitution and Treaty? As good as non-existent.

This article first appeared in the original Dutch in the January 2017 edition of SP monthly magazine Tribune.

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