In early January, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that a Dutch advisory referendum, which took place today, on the bloc’s association agreement with Ukraine could lead to a “continental crisis” if voters reject the treaty.
In an interview in January for Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, Juncker said Russia would “pluck the fruits” of a vote in the Netherlands against deepened ties between the European Union and Ukraine. “I want the Dutch to understand that the importance of this question goes beyond the Netherlands,” NRC quoted Juncker as saying. “I don’t believe the Dutch will say no, because it would open the door to a big continental crisis.”
The reason why Jean-Claude “when it gets serious, you have to lie” Juncker was so nervous, is that the vote, launched by anti-EU forces, is seen as test of the strength of Eurosceptics on the continent just three months before Britain votes on whether to stay in the European Union.
Fast forward to today when the vote just took place, and based on initial exit polls, Juncker was dead wrong. According to Reuters, in a rebuke for the government, which campaigned in favor of the EU-Ukraine association agreement, roughly 64 percent voted “No” and 36 percent said “Yes”.
As a reminder, the political, trade and defense treaty is already provisionally in place but has to be ratified by all 28 European Union member states for every part of it to have full legal force. The Netherlands is the only country that has not done so.
And, it appears, that in a big hit for those who had plotted the Ukraine ascension, the Dutch may have just frozen Ukraine dead in its tracks.
Eurosceptics had presented the referendum as a rare opportunity for their countrymen to cast a vote against the EU and the way it is run – including its open immigration policies.
But here lies the rub. Although it is non-binding, it will be considered as an advisory referendum by the government if turnout reaches 30 percent. Otherwise it will be considered null and void and need not be taken into consideration by the government.
And while according to some initial exit polls, the turnout was just 28%, or below the required threshold, the most recent data has the turnout as 32%, or sufficient.
Still, this number may change before the night is over, so keep a close eye on this otherwise insignificant vote in the Netherlands as it may have momentuous consequences for the country and the entire European project. According to a prominent Dutch pollster, the final turnout will be 31%, or an absolute nailbiter.
— Pieter Cleppe (@pietercleppe) April 6, 2016
The turnout, far lower than in national or local elections, reflected many voters’ puzzlement at being asked to vote on such an abstruse topic. “Yes” voters were certainly confused: “I think the people who asked for this referendum have made a huge commotion,” said Trudy, a “Yes” voter in central Amsterdam. “It’s nonsense, which cost lots of money, and it’s about something nobody understands.”
Which, of course, is what anyone who is in the vast minority will say.
Meanwhile, Geert Wilders, leader of the eurosceptic Freedom Party, urged voters to send a message to Europe by saying “No”. “I think many Dutchmen are fed up with more European Union and this treaty with Ukraine that is not in the interests of the Dutch people,” he told reporters. “I hope that later, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, other countries will follow.”
As Reuters adds, a clear vote against the treaty in the run-up to Britain’s June 23 referendum on whether to quit the EU could escalate into a domestic or even a Europe-wide political crisis.
Dutch leaders say voting against the treaty would also hand a symbolic victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is unclear if anti-Russian sentiment swayed voters nearly two years on but increasing resentment among the Dutch at the consequences of the EU’s open-border policies has propelled Wilders – who openly opposes Muslim immigration – to the top of public opinion polls.
In many ways, Wilders is the local Donald Trump.
Reuters also notes that the ballot also taps into a more deep-seated anti-establishment sentiment highlighted by a resounding rejection in 2005 of a European Union constitution, also in a referendum.
However, just like in Greece, the gears are already set in motion to ignore the majority vote. In parliament, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative VVD party has said it would ignore a narrow “No” vote, while junior coalition partner Labour has said it would honor it, setting the stage for a split.
But ignoring a clear “No” would be risky for Rutte’s already unpopular government — which has lost further ground over Europe’s refugee debate – ahead of national elections scheduled for no later than March 2017.
While we are confident that ultimately the will of the “No” voters will be ignored, just as it was in Greece, the resentment toward an oligarchic class which clearly can only operate under a non-democratic, call it despotic, regime is sure to spread. As for the Netherlands, while nothing may happen for the next 12 months, it will take some very brazen vote tampering next year to perpetuate a status quo which no longer serves the majority of its own country.