Last Wednesday 6 April, Dutch voters were asked to express their opinion on the Act of their National Parliament approving the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. Almost a week later, the Dutch Electoral Council, acting as central electoral committee, has finally published the official results, confirming the earlier press release. The rejection of the agreement by the Dutch electorate has been welcomed home and in the rest of Europe by populists and xenophobic parties as the signal of a growing dissent towards European institutions. The scenario prospected by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, affirming last January that a Dutch rejection would entail “a continental crisis”, may be finally at the door. In this moment of fragility, the European project, already under stress because of the migrants and refugees crisis, is under the sword of Damocles of the Brexit referendum, to be held in almost two months.
In Britain, Nigel Farage, leader of the euro-sceptic UKIP party, affirmed to be pleased by “the triumph of patriotic forces”, followed soon by similar declarations by Marine Le Pen, co-chair of the Group of Europe of Nations and Freedom at the European Parliament. Currently under investigation by the European Parliament on subsidies funnelled to Dutch referendum campaigners by a Brussels think tank linked to his person, Farage admitted having arranged funds for the newspaper advert that helped collect enough signatures to back the petition.
At the moment, the rejection of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement signals the potential for an anti-EU coalition that, despite weak electoral participation, is promoted by politicians capable of maximizing the impact of their followers via the referendum tool. This phenomenon is encountering almost no obstacles by Europhile political forces and citizens, shaken by the umpteenth scandal involving political elites. In fact, the recent leak of documents from the Panama-based corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, dubbed the “Panama Papers” by the media, has revealed the implication of various international personalities in masking their capitals via offshore investment funds. As far as concerns our case here, the two involved are David Cameron, prime minister of Britain, and Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine since June 2014.
Poroshenko finds himself at the crossroad between two snow slides: the first is about to sweep him as the private businessmen he’s been until now, the second one is about to carry away his political program as former Foreign minister and current President of Ukraine, that is to say the reinforcement of Ukrainian democracy after civil war and the depletion of its full economic potential via the trade with the European Single Market. On that note, we must recall that it was precisely former President Viktor Yanukovich refusal to sign the same UE-Ukraine agreement that pushed Ukrainians to the street, ending up in ousting Yanukovich himself. After the Euromaidan revolution, the reconciliation with the EU led to an undeclared war conducted by Putin’s armed forces against the former Soviet satellite supporters of the European ally, until the annexation of Crimea to Russia, the occupation of the Donets Basin by Ukrainian separatists, and at least 9.000 deaths. Facing this scenario, the West has been obliged to sanction Russia and openly offer its support the government in Kiev. Struggling to reform the country and re-orient its economy and trade towards EU, Poroshenko searched since the beginning of office to obtain a new deal, with a specific aim to strengthen Kyiv-Brussels relations to achieve the build-up of a Free Trade Area and a free-visa access for his nationals to the Schengen space. The Panama Papers leak unveiled that his company Roshen had set up an offshore society to avoid taxes, during a peak in fighting in August 2014, which has damaged his image and credibility. Now that the agreement has been rejected, we can presume that the same text cannot be applied in the Netherlands, so a new agreement must be negotiated, and that a new round to reach unanimity would be required, i.e. several months.
Until the 6 of April, the Netherlands were the last EU member not having ratified the Association Agreement yet, despite both Chambers of its Parliament had already granted their approval. Since the introduction in 2015 of advisory referendum law, once a bill is passed by both Houses, a group of voters may request a referendum through a preliminary collect of 10.000 signatures. Then, if at least 300.000 declarations of support are reached, the referendum can be held. In our specific case, among the organizers of the referendum there were mainly exponents of euro-sceptical or xenophobic parties, with Geert Wilders’ PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, Freedom Party) leading the initiative. The organisers openly recognised that the proposed ballot aimed at pushing a broader anti-EU agenda, taking advantage of the mounting consensus for euro-sceptical parties, which are building their fortune in the Netherlands on xenophobic attitudes entailed by the migration crisis. As of September 2015, the referendum on the approval act for the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement was called; then the Kieesrad (Dutch Electoral Council) announced on 14 October that a sufficient number of requests had been received (472 849, of which 427 939 valid). According with the Advisory Referendum Act, if at least 30% of the voters correctly express their preference, the result is valid and produces immediately its effects, in this particular case being the freeze of the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Agreement. A majority of 61% went against the agreement (2.509.395 voters), while 38.21% voted in favour (1.571.874) and 0.79% cast a blank vote (32.344). In terms of participation, we can say it has been weak indeed, but still susceptible of reaching the quorum of 30%. On 12.862.658 persons eligible to vote, 4.151.613 voters did exercise this right, amounting to a voter turnout of 32.38%. A valuable explanation is that until the very last moment the general expectation was that the quorum wouldn’t be reached, so we can presume that among the abstentions lies a potential favour to the agreement. Even if the referendum is not binding per se, Mark Rutte’s government cannot ignore the results, especially considering that the Netherlands are currently covering the Council of the Union rotational presidency. Any modification concerning the same agreement must be submitted to both Chambers again, which constitutes a further threat to the status quo, because of the fragile majority the executive can count on in the Senate.
A similar scenario of incertitude can be found these days in Great Britain, with David Cameron threatened by the Panama Papers scandal and by the fact that the Dutch rejection of the EU-Ukraine Agreement (interpreted as an anti-EU vote) constitutes a further argument in favour of Britain’s detachment from an ever fragmented Union.
Firstly, Cameron’s father, Ian Cameron, managed to build the family fortune through (entirely legal) funds set up in tax havens such as Panama City and Geneva, explicitly boasting of their ability to remain outside UK tax jurisdiction, as already exposed by the press in 2012. One of these societies, Blairmore Holdings Inc., was the major beneficiary of the offshore fiscal (absence of) fiscal discipline, and David Cameron and his wife Samantha directly took advantage of it, having been Blairmore shareholders between 1997 and 2010. If that wouldn’t mine Cameron’s position (because in 30 years Blairmore has never paid taxes in the UK on its profits, or because the main instrument used were bearer shares, abolished in many countries because used by mobsters and tax evaders for money laundering) a leaked letter sent to Herman Van Rompuy did. In this letter, sent by Cameron to the former President of European Council when they were both in office, the prime minister asked explicitly for further developments in European law in order to protect and favour offshore investments.
Secondly, the ability shown by Dutch euro-sceptics in mobilizing electors is a serious warning with respect to the various campaigns launched by Brexiters, being Cameron a supporter of the “Stay In”. Opposed by strategist as Nigel Farage, that embodies the bridge between the past referendum in the Netherlands – as mentioned before – and the future referendum to be held in the United Kingdom next 23 June. Is that the start of the fall of David Cameron?
What we can presume until now is that the juridical and political follow-up of the Dutch referendum will influence directly the Brexit scenario. First of all, British electors will evaluate the Union in its response to the Netherlands, in its capability of a new strategy with Ukraine and, last but not least, in its relations with Russia, last one being clearly interested in a more pronounced crumbling of European cohesion. Secondly, the fate of the Prime Minister will affect the support of the “remaining in the EU” option. The tangle panorama of British politics doesn’t enable us to single out a direct beneficiary of Cameron’s eventual fall.
Boris Johnson has a clear stake in this, being already projected to become the next Tory leader. But despite the flood of publications on social media inciting Cameron to quit (all labelled with the hashtag #ResignDavidCameron), the Panama Papers scandal has projected a larger shadow on the whole Conservative Party and, more generally, on the privileged “Investment elite”, putting into question several personalities and Johnson among them.
In conclusion, the Ukrainian Association Agreement has proven to be another stab in the back of the Union, for reasons that concern more internal EU dynamics than external relations. The real lesson for the Union in the long term and for Britain in the short one is that a new concrete dialogue must be put in place to rebuild the trust between citizens and their elected politician, offering more transparency and a better, simplified communication from the EU institutions to the national constituency.
What as emerged last week is that an electorate that feels more and more excluded from the decisional process and that sees the system above him as weak or self-interested, has been and would be a more confused target for centrifugal forces within EU. The easy exploitation of the referendum tool made by populist parties doesn’t imply the tool per se is a negative one, instead it reveals the need for new policies to inform and render European citizens more aware of the implication of current European initiatives and of the consequences of their vote. The problem is not to understand or analyse the reasons behind the mounting anti-EU consensus or populism, but to find the roots of the absence of a real concrete Europhile counteroffensive, neither at European, national nor transnational level. Our suggestion for a truly pro-European defensive action would be that of intercept the support of the potential absent at future ballots, rather than pursuing the old strategy of (scarcely) communicating to those that have education and interest in an ever closer Union. Because, at the end, these lasts constitute just a minority.
As commented by MEP Richard Howitt (UK, S&D) at Nieuswspoort in The Hague : « This referendum was never about vague concepts of European democracy or even enlargement, but a specific agreement fairly negotiated by EU countries which supports democratic development in a neighbouring country which otherwise threatens to be a source of future conflicts to us all. Dutch voters appear to have been apathetic or confused about the issues involved […] the lesson for the British referendum […] is that not voting allows extremism to prosper, but that this time the country whose future is at stake isn’t several time zones away, but right here at home”.
For further information:
- Euractiv (FR) :
- Kiesraad (Electoral Council) website (EN, NL) :
- Eerste Kamer der Staten General (Senate) website (NL) :
- The Telegraph (EN):
- The Guardian (EN):