Van Raak: No should mean no

29 May 2017

Van Raak: No should mean no

According to the daily newspaper Trouw, I am 'polluting' the discussion of the future of the referendum. That's quite a judgment coming from such a measured newspaper, especially when it's in the editorial column. The reason for it was that I have taken on the proposal for a law introducing a binding referendum. This bill was originally proposed by a combination of Green Left, Labour and D66 and passed by both Houses of Parliament, but had to be given another reading because it required an amendment to the Constitution. In the wake of the 'no' vote in the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, these parties suddenly became opponents of the binding referendum and refused even to put what had been their own bill forward once more. In doing so, they were acting contrary to the Constitution.

To prevent this law disappearing into a deep, dark filing cabinet, I simply re-presented the proposal and declared myself prepared to defend the law in parliament. In doing so I did not 'pollute' the debate on the referendum, as Trouw asserts, but simply prevented an open debate  in the Lower House from being made impossible for party political reasons. I also avoided a situation in which Parliament would find itself in conflict with the Constitution, which makes a further reading of this constitutional amendment obligatory.
Had the people voted not no but yes in last April's Ukraine referendum,would Green Left, Labour and D66 have distanced themselves from their own referendum law? It was the party members of the Green Left and Labour who forced their parties' MPs to change their position. There's nothing wrong with that ; it's simply an aspect of party democracy. But I ask myself whether they would have done the same in the event of a yes in the Ukraine referendum. It's not so much the referendum method itself as the result which seems to be the problem.

According to Trouw we cannot 'persist in maintaining' that referenda lead to 'better decisions’, but the public appears to differ from this newspaper. Referenda,  Trouw argues have 'absolutely not' led to more support, but I'm afraid that's mainly because the results of these plebiscites are simply not being respected.  ‘Since last April it has been crystal clear that a principled discussion of the usefulness of and need for referenda isn't necessary,' opines Trouw. But such a discussion appears to me just now extremely necessary, because a law introducing a new and binding referendum had been adopted, a law that even this newspaper can't simply consign to the shredder.

On Tuesday the Senate votes on the treaty with Ukraine, possibly transforming the people's 'no' into a 'yes'. That's possible because the existing referendum rules make that vote 'advisory' and therefore parties can simply set the result aside. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in his own words, had found a 'goat track' via which he could stumble towards a route around the 'no'-voters objections. From a legal point of view this is unconvincing, but it was good enough to satisfy the Senate – the CDA, the centre-right opposition party which continued to vote against the treaty when it came before the Lower House, now joined the Senate majority in voting in favour. With a binding referendum, this kind of political theatre would not be possible and the people's 'no' would have remained a 'no'.

The chance of a binding referendum receiving sufficient support in the Lower House is small, now that even the three parties which initiated it – the Green Left, Labour and D66 – are no longer willing to give it their support. But I'm not giving up. I want very much to pursue the debate. And just like Premier Rutte, I see the path ahead as a 'goat track'. Not to agreement with the European leaders, as he did, but towards agreement with the Dutch people. Not by means of an unnecessary annex to the agreement, but rather via public debate. Because in my view in a democracy the people should always be able to call out their representatives. And because, also, no must must always mean no.

Ronald van Raak is a Member of Parliament for the SP.

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