Dutch referendum may be decided on issue of refugees

Netherlands poll on Ukraine treaty could be hijacked to focus on migration policy

The Netherlands has named April 6th as the date for a referendum on a treaty forging closer ties between the EU and Ukraine, a vote which is in danger of becoming a popular plebiscite on refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East.

Although the referendum will be “consultative” (non-binding) a No vote would be hugely embarrassing for prime minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal-Labour coalition government, which takes over the rotating presidency of the EU on January 1st.

Rejection would inevitably raise the spectre of the Netherlands’ overwhelming No vote in the 2005 referendum on the EU’s constitutional treaty, which, to Brussels’ horror, had also been decisively rejected by the French three days earlier.

Unlike 2005, however, this latest vote has been forced on the Dutch government by “a citizens’ initiative” comprising the think tank, Forum for Democracy; Burgercomité EU, which campaigns for an in-out referendum on EU membership; and the “shock” website, Geenstijl.nl.


They see it as the perfect opportunity to test new legislation that came into effect on July 1st allowing the electorate to call for a consultative referendum on any recently adopted law once a threshold of 300,000 signatures has been reached in a “citizens’ petition”.

Historic moment

The Dutch senate approved the EU-Ukraine association agreement on July 7th, six days after the referendum law came into effect – giving the agreement the distinction of becoming the first piece of EU-related legislation to be put to a popular vote under its provisions.

According to the electoral council, 472,849 signatures were collected, 90.6 per cent of which were valid.

The president of the council described the vote as “a historic moment” for Dutch democracy.

So what is it about the EU-Ukraine association agreement that should concern Dutch voters?

Essentially, those in favour say its aim is closer political and economic co-operation between Brussels and Kiev, the beginning of a programme of integration to move Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into that of the West.

Those against argue that EU “expansionism” is costing individual members billions of euros, is giving less of a say to each state as the community grows, and, given Ukraine’s fraught relationship with Russia, puts the EU on a collision course with Moscow.

However, it is becoming clear that, rather than focusing on anything substantive to do with Ukraine, many in the No camp plan to concentrate on the EU’s lack of a coherent refugee policy.

They plan to do so in a potentially explosive climate in which one recent poll showed 92 per cent of Dutch people believe those arriving from Syria and elsewhere should be sent home as quickly as possible.

‘Without consent’

Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: “This push for a Dutch referendum shows that many peoples across Europe, not just the British, are tired of the EU forcing laws, expenses and migrants onto them without their consent.”

Dutch Eurosceptic Thierry Baudet, founder of the Forum for Democracy, even suggested the EU-Ukraine agreement could allow Ukrainians to travel freely across Europe without visas were the conflict with Russia to worsen.

And Geert Wilders, whose anti-EU, anti-immigrant Freedom Party is at an all-time high in the polls in response to the arrival here of 60,000 refugees this year, says he'll support a No vote.

There’s no doubt the exercise of democracy is a good thing, even when legislation already passed by parliament is being challenged. What happens, though, when the referendum question being answered is not the one being asked? That is now in danger of happening on April 6th next year.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court