Edition 22 March, by Marla Thomson
On February 28, the Lower House of the Dutch parliament voted 76 to 69 to abolish the direct voting practice of the advisory referendum, where a nationwide vote can be called when the at least 300,000 signatures are collected on the issue. Advisory referendum has only been in practice in Dutch politics since 2015 and has only been initiated twice, with the second and final referendum slated for March 21 regarding intelligence and security activities in the Kingdom. Though non-binding, governments usually consider the outcome valid if at least 30% of the electorate participates in the voting. This was the case for the first Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, voted on in April of 2016.
Though at the surface, referendums may seem like a political process that facilitates a more direct democratic system, the results can be the opposite of what was intended and with the threshold for consideration being at 300,000 signatures radical or sweeping issues can easily be brought to vote. Many see referendums as being a disruptive force in a country’s ability to govern effectively and stay on course. Take the first Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. In April 2016 after years of cooperative work towards stronger ties, the EU and the Ukraine drafted an agreement that would strengthen their economic and political ties. Ratification of this agreement required each of the 28 member countries to individually accept the agreement through each country’s voting process. For The Netherlands this was through the advisory referendum. The results were, as Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, “disastrous” with more than 69% of the votes rejecting the agreement (though a mere 31% of the electorate participated). The Kingdom was the only member state to not accept the agreement, putting Dutch foreign policy and its standing with fellow member countries in precarious positions. This sent Rutte and his government into reactionary mode to add concessions and amendments to finally reach Dutch acceptance of the agreement.
Opposition to the Dutch advisory referendum increased further when just two months after the embarrassing results on the EU-Ukrainian vote the United Kingdom held its Brexit referendum, voting to exit the European Union with a razor-thin margin of 51.89% in favor of the exit. Leaving the EU would be detrimental to The Netherlands and with the surprising results of the UK European Union membership referendum, the Dutch government undoubtedly took a very sobering look at the reality the advisory referendum into its policy making process. With right-wing frontman Geert Wilders praising the Brexit decision and calling on The Netherlands to follow suit surely contributed to pro-European and more centric and leftists to reconsider this practice. Proponents of the Dutch advisory referendum argue that this involvement of the electorate is direct democracy and rooted in the will of the electorate; its removal will be killing democracy. Strong opponents even called for a vote of no-confidence in the legislature’s author, Minister of the Interior, Kasja Ollongren, though it was voted down. The controversy continued even with those who favored abolishing referendums, saying that a referendum was needed to end the referendum and the speed at which the legislation was adopted was too fast and without careful consideration.
While this vote in the lower house was relatively fast, perhaps the government saw the recent referendums being too monumental with outcomes that were not expected to not move fast on the removal. The upcoming March 21 and final Dutch referendum on surveillance efforts by intelligence organizations will also have important consequences. Given the instability of current global affairs, the need for strong unity at home and throughout Europe and the rise of dangerous ideologies perhaps clamping down on practices that allow for radicals ideas and changes to come to a vote far too easily.