Why a referendum in a representative democracy?
On 6 April 2016, the Dutch voted against the EU-Ukraine association agreement in an advisory referendum. In a representative democracy such as the Netherlands why were they asked to cast their vote in the first place?
Although many high profile Dutch politicians were opposed to holding referendums in general the idea was not new. With the rise of left-wing and liberal parties in the second half of the 20th century, a constitutional right to hold referendums was demanded more and more often.
After an unsuccessful attempt in the late 1990s to have a binding correctional referendum enshrined in the Dutch constitution, a first law allowing for advisory referendums was in force between 2002 and 2005. It was also under this law that the Dutch voters advised the Dutch government with a resounding "No" against the introduction of the Constitutional Treaty for the EU in 2005 - with important repercussions for the entire European Union.
The strong participation in the 2005 referendum led to many parties demanding the permanent introduction of advisory referenda in Dutch law. However, the now governing and pro-European liberal VVD had withdrawn its support for referendums and there was no majority for the law until the extreme right-wing PVV reintroduced it in 2013.
Who organised the referendum and what was it really about?
Three initiators funded the "Burgercomité EU" and were - according to their own claims - quite indifferent, on what they wanted to organise a referendum. Their ultimate goal is to either break apart the EU or work towards a "Nexit" (i.e. the Netherlands leaving the EU). They knew the ratification of the Ukraine association treaty was coming up in the Dutch parliament, but was scheduled before the new referendum law was in force.
They asked both the socialist SP as well as the far-right PVV to delay the ratification. This allowed them to organise the referendum. The right-wing populist blog GeenStijl liked the idea as a "little summer story", but their support along with an app to sign the request for a referendum quickly generated enough support for the referendum to actually take place.
What followed was a big mismatch in the public debate between what the referendum was really about and what the goals of the EU-Ukraine treaty really are. Whereas some supporters of the "no" campaign openly stated the referendum was just a first step to a "Nexit", other - less critical of EU membership itself - stirred up fears it would lead to Ukrainian EU membership and military cooperation of the EU with a country at war with Russia.
The government was trying to diffuse these fears and tried to communicate on what the treaty was really about. The VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte was in the most difficult situation, because they did not support the idea of referendums as such and thus remained more on the background in the entire discussion.
To many people in the political establishment, it came as a surprise that the quorum of 30% of voters was reached and that the final vote was such a resounding "no" against the association treaty.
What will happen now and will there be future referendums?
The looming Brexit referendum as well as the Dutch government's position as presidency of the EU Council have led to the decision to put the discussion on the backburner. Although the majority of opposition parties requested this, the government does not want to withdraw the ratification of the treaty, stating it would isolate the Netherlands in the EU. They also do not want to renew the ratification without prior discussion with the "no"-campaign and potential negotiations with the other EU member states on a possible re-drafting of the text.
The law on advisory referendums could also be used by anti-EU forces in the future. The organisers of this referendum are working on a referendum on the TTIP agreement between the US and EU to follow up on their success with this campaign.