Brian Monteith: Dutch vote may be start of the EU’s decline

The Dutch government is under pressure as right-wing Freedom Party leader  Geert Wilders picks up support with a general election due in the Netherlands next year. Picture: AFP/Getty
The Dutch government is under pressure as right-wing Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders picks up support with a general election due in the Netherlands next year. Picture: AFP/Getty
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The failure of Brussels to bring about root and branch reform will lead to more dissatisfaction, says Brian Monteith

This Wednesday the Dutch hold their own referendum on the European Union. Unlike ours in Britain it is not about membership but on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine.

The vote is being held after the EU-sceptic think tank Forum for Democracy along with the website Geenpeil (famed for its expose of MEPs signing in to claim their allowances before leaving) launched a campaign to gather 300,000 signatures which would force the Dutch Electoral Council to hold a referendum. In the end they raised 427,000 signatures.

The Danes had a similar referendum back in December, on whether or not to turn an EU opt-out on justice and home affairs laws, into an opt-in.

As with many referenda, it opened up into wider debates than those initially intended, on this occasion including border security, uncontrolled migration and the ability of the European Union to govern itself.

The Danes rejected allowing ­Brussels to decide their migration and asylum policy, a significant ­outcome given that Denmark’s neighbours, Germany and Sweden, are the two EU countries receiving the most asylum seekers.

While on paper the Dutch ­referendum is about some in the Netherlands not wanting to finance Ukraine, or be responsible for migrants from there when they are granted visa free travel, in reality it puts the issue of the European Union on the table and is being seen by many in the country as a referendum on the Dutch attitude towards the EU.

There are many Dutch EU-sceptics who hold a justifiable grievance towards the European Union after they rejected the European Constitution in a referendum in 2005 only to find it was still foisted upon them.

As in other examples with Ireland, Denmark and France, the Netherlands electorate found out the hard way that the EU Commission will ignore democracy and rewrite its own rules.

All opposing countries were ­subsequently signed up to the ­Lisbon Treaty, which is almost identical to the constitution they had previously rejected.

The ill-will towards detached and distant EU politicians that this ­episode generated remains and there is a strong possibility that the Dutch government, campaigning in favour of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, could lose.

If that does happen it will be noticed in the UK and cited as evidence that dissatisfaction with the European Union is not confined to the EU but is Europe-wide.

This is important for it clashes with the mythmaking of the Remain ­campaign that to feel a European, indeed to stay in Europe, you have to be in favour of the European Union and be a member.

This is, of course, preposterous. Europe is a geographical reality while the EU is a political institution ­comprised of 28 of its 51 states. ­Nevertheless, a day hardly passes when I hear someone on the radio being asked a leading question such as if they “want to leave Europe” or if they would “feel European” if the UK left the EU?

The idea that the Norwegians or Swiss feel any less European for not being in the EU is demonstrable ­nonsense. From European sporting and cultural events, to culinary and historical influence, neither these two countries, or others outside the EU, are any less European than those that are EU members.

The European Union’s association agreement with Ukraine, negotiated between 2008 and 2012, is more than just a free trade deal; were it only that then the break down in relations between the Ukraine and ­Russia would probably have been avoided.

Instead it involves the EU in the reform of Ukrainian institutions and laws is all about paving the way for the Ukraine to become a full ­member of the EU.

It introduces wholly ­unnecessary military links with the European Union by establishing military dialogue, technological co-operation and the possibility of joint ­participation in EU missions.

It naturally includes visa free travel to the EU that would open the door to Ukraine’s 44 million people in ­addition to the visa free travel recently granted to Turkey’s 78 million inhabitants.

While the Dutch public is at least ambivalent and probably in favour of free trade with Ukraine – the ­Netherlands has always been a great free trading nation – the population is probably less enamoured with the prospect of visa free travel from a country that is still under what can only be termed a civil war, which led to the shooting down of a passenger jet with 169 Dutch people killed.

Polling shows Dutch opposition to the EU Agreement at 44 per cent and support at only 33 per cent with just under a quarter of voters undecided.

If the turnout is less than 30 per cent then the referendum has no authority. Above that it will become a real political problem and probably lead to the Dutch voting down the agreement in EU meetings.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, leads the centre-right VVD ­party which is split on the issue. Unfortunately for Rutte he faces a general election in the spring of next year and the right-wing Freedom ­Party, led by Geert Wilders, is breathing down his neck.

The last thing he needs is to ­elevate the issue and play into Wilders’ hands. His best hope is that there will be a low turnout making the referendum immaterial, but this is now ­looking less likely.

What this means for the UK debate is that is gives supporters of Brexit ammunition for their argument that Britain is not the only country in Europe that is fed-up with the ­European Union.

It will point to the issue of ­migration as being the chief concern of electorates across Europe, not because of race or religion but because of ­unlimited numbers lowering wages for the low paid, placing pressures on schools and hospitals and making the demands on housing even greater than they are.

It will also give comfort and encouragement to those in the UK ­campaigning to leave the EU that they can win here in Britain and that they are not alone.

Every other country in the 28-member block is watching our debate in the UK closely to see whether or not we have the courage to leave.

If we do leave we can expect the sound of further referendum calls across Europe, as campaigners decide that the EU, having failed to countenance any meaningful reform when given the chance, is beyond ­saving from itself.

• Brian Monteith is a director of ­Global Britain