Poll-stations opened before 08:00 and will close after 20:00 in the Netherlands this Wednesday. Dutch can vote “Yes” or “No” in a referendum on a EU association agreement with Ukraine. All EU member-states bar the Netherlands have ratified the agreement and it is already in place. As the Netherlands currently chairs the EU, a “No” by Dutch voters will be highly embarrassing to the Dutch government.
As mentioned in a previous post, ensuring this referendum would take place was a battle. Nevertheless, the group which started the campaign for a referendum managed to obtain over 400,000 signatures where the minimum needed was 300,000. The Dutch High Council decided a referendum should take place.
Throughout the campaign, there have been reports in the media of councils meddling with the phrasing of the voting forms, or refusing to open all polling desks and thus limiting places voters can visit to take part in this referendum.
Politicians in favour of the agreement stress it will help trade, human rights, the fight against corruption and more. Politicians against the agreement sum up very valid arguments: trading already takes place, the Dutch economy will not benefit but only multi-nationals will, the agreement has no bearing nor influence whatsoever on human rights, the agreement will not alter a corrupt society, fraud is endemic and will not be tackled – and worse. Since Monday, the latter arguments are underpinned by disclosures from the Panama Papers.
Well before the Panama Papers hit the scene, opinion polls already predicted the “No” votes would win. However, around 11 o’clock local time, one of the Netherlands leading research companies stated the turn-out may remain below 30% of the electorate vote. This percentage is needed to ensure the result will be considered valid.
In 2014, only 37% of the Dutch electorate bothered to vote in the European Elections. Today, the percentage may stick at 29. What may partly cause today’s low turn-out may be the fact, this referendum is only advisory.
In an earlier referendum on the introduction of the EU constitution the no-vote amounted to over 60%. Yet the then Dutch government ignored the wishes of Dutch voters. The stance of the present Dutch government does not differ that much. Ministers and politicians alike, admit they would be unable to ignore a “No” but stressed a Dutch referendum is advisory. They and Dutch media also pointed out, that all EU member-states had already ratified the agreement.
Dutch voters are cynical and savvy enough to deduce that their government and Brussels will certainly not bin this agreement, even if the “No”‘s have it. Yet the low turn-out is now causing Dutch politicians to urge their electorate to go and vote.
At least one person will undoubtedly be very pleased and relieved if the outcome of this referendum will be invalid: Prime Minister Mark Rutte. A “No” would be highly embarrassing to him during the Netherlands’ presidency of the EU.