Referendums can be controversial affairs, certainly when the voters get the result they were hoping for and it goes against the wishes of the national government. They can be especially contentious when national decisions result in international chaos. The Netherland’s Consultative Referendum Act has caused one such example; since the law’s implementation, it has signalled trouble on the horizon for European Union policies.

The Netherlands’ Consultative Referendum Act (Het Raadgevend Referendum) was proclaimed on 1st July 2015. If 300,000 signatures are obtained, citizens have the right to trigger a non-binding referendum on most laws and treaties that is passed by the two chambers of the Dutch Parliament. For the referendum to be valid, the turnout of voters must be higher than 30%.

The first referendum since the law’s implementation occurred on April 6th 2016. On this date, a referendum concerning the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was held, resulting in 64% of voters rejecting the treaty, causing media rumours that the referendum was a result of anti-EU feeling in the Netherlands. Thus, the Netherlands remains the only country that still has not ratified the Association Agreement.

The first’s referendum resounding (debatable) success has caused political ripple effects; only two weeks later, the Socialist Party was calling for a referendum regarding the controversial TTIP, and Dutch activists already have two thirds of the signatures needed to trigger another referendum concerning CETA, the Canada-EU trade deal. The Consultative Referendum Act has been an effective way for citizens to voice their concerns.

On the one hand, the Act makes the democratic process clearer, allowing citizens access to a method of direct democracy that traditional forms of democracy may not offer them. Advocates for the referendum process argue that it combats voter disenchantment and apathy, engaging voters directly and allowing them the responsibility to decide the future of political decisions that have consequences for national and international policies. Meer Democratie (More Democracy), a Dutch campaign group and driving force behind the Act’s application, called the referendum vote on the Ukraine treaty ‘the first citizen-initiated referendum in the Netherlands’. GeenStijl, a popular blog, gave their reasoning for supporting the referendum as being concerned about the level of democracy in the Netherlands and the EU. As stated, the Netherlands remains the last member state to ratify the treaty. The Dutch prime minister is treading carefully to garner support for the Dutch ratification, hoping to finalise EU support for a declaration regarding the Association Agreement that he hopes will pacify those who still oppose the treaty’s implementation. This is an obvious indicator of the power that this referendum law can have; despite the Ukraine treaty being non-binding, the Dutch government does not want to defy the popular vote. The result can arguably be viewed as a success for the ordinary citizen and direct democracy; through the vote, they have loudly expressed their disagreements at the national and European levels. Referendums cause more transparency in politics, this is representative of the power of individual voices.

However, the results of the Ukraine treaty have been accused of ‘hijacking EU foreign policy’, with several sources arguing that the referendum should not be able to derail an international treaty that has been negotiated by 28 member states and ratified by 27. One argument against referenda on international treaties suggests that it weakens representative democracy by undermining the importance of elected representatives; in the case of the Ukraine treaty, there seems to be a divergence in the opinion of ordinary citizens and the elected European representatives. Fraser Cameron, former European Commission official, suggests that referendums on EU issues should be banned completely, as ‘it is hardly democratic that 30% of voters in one member state can block a policy approved by 27 member states’. Whilst he is correct in suggesting that 30% of voters in one member state should not be able to block a treaty that has been agreed by the majority of other EU governments, his view that referendums on EU issues should be banned only demonstrates the lack of transparency between elected representatives and the ordinary citizen. This is evident in the Consultative Referendum Act, which has caused problems in European Union politics, as it shows a distinct conflict between national and supranational concerns.

National votes that cause international problems, like the Ukraine treaty, will continue to plague the European political arena unless the conflict between domestic concerns and international policies are addressed. The referendum on the Ukraine treaty and the possible ones regarding TTIP and CETA in the Netherlands, not to mention the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, show the strength that referenda can give to the voting populace. Unless the concerns of the ordinary people are clearly addressed in Brussels, the progress of EU policy-making may be significantly stalled.

Rebecca Hogg is the Ambassador to the Netherlands for the European Student Think Tank. She is currently a Master’s student of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, having gained her Bachelor’s degree in French, Russian and East European Civilisations from the University of Nottingham in the UK. Rebecca spent her Erasmus year abroad as a Language Assistant in France, as an au pair in Belgium and studying the Russian language in Petrozavodsk, Russia. Her areas of interest include the culture and history of Europe, the East-West divide, Women’s Rights in Europe and the rise of nationalism and populism.