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Are referenda not really your thing? Well, they should be.

By Ties Gijzel

I never thought that I’d ever neglect to vote. Voting is a right that has long been fought for, and choosing not to vote takes away your right to engage with politics - at least, that’s what I was always told. 

On the 6th of April this year, however, Dutch citizens were asked to vote in a referendum either in favour or against a treaty between the EU and Ukraine that would improve their economic and political ties (read what the treaty was about here). For the first time in my limited experience as a voter, I decided to stay home and thereby gave up my right to affect the outcome of the referendum.

I apparently wasn’t the only one, as many other Dutch voters decided to abstain from voting: the threshold for the referendum to be valid was 30 percent and with a turn-out of 32,28 percent it was barely attained. Out of this 32 percent, a majority (61 percent) voted against the treaty between the EU and Ukraine.

The day after the referendum, Dutch media were surprised about the “convincing ‘no’ to Europe”. However, it soon became clear that this ‘no’ was not as convincing as it seemed: the 61 percent that voted against the treaty represented only 19 percent of eligible Dutch voters.

The outcome of the referendum:

For or against EU treaty with Ukraine?

The reason for this low turnout is not a mystery: most people, including myself, found it a bullshit-referendum that shouldn’t even have taken place. And not without good reason: according to this interview of the Dutch newspaper NRC with the organisers of the referendum, they stated a week before the vote took place that they didn’t care about the actual treaty but mostly wanted to rebel against Europe in general terms. 

The organisers labelled the referendum as a step towards democracy by giving people ‘their voice back’, but they actually did the contrary: they stopped a treaty with a struggling country that is at war, without knowing the treaty’s content and implications.

Eurosceptics on the rise

Even though the referendum was not binding, it effectively showed that 19 percent of Dutch voters are angry Eurosceptics. And now that the referendum's outcome is being completely ignored by the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his government, the anger of these voters will only increase. 

The Wall Street Journal calls this 19 percent of the Dutch population “EU’s new ticking time bomb” - and they’re right.

My greatest concern is not necessarily the upcoming Dutch election in which the notorious populist Geert Wilders aims to pull a big middle finger to the ‘elite’. No, I fear that more ‘bullshit referenda’ will follow now that only 300.000 signatures are necessary to organise a referendum, and that a referendum on a “Nexit” eventually becomes inevitable. Even the fact that more than 30 percent of the Dutch GDP depends on exports will then not prevail against emotions like fear of immigration or Islamophobia.

The No (Nee) Campaign.. Source: the New Europe

The No (Nee) Campaign.. Source: the New Europe

'Accept the outcome of the referendum!' 

Dear Mr Rutte, please realise that many people already so easily bash on Europe and so happily hate the elite. Sure, only a minority of Dutch voters voted against the Ukraine-treaty, but it is exactly this group of voters that is getting angrier and angrier as long as they feel that they are being ignored. I know the referendum and its outcome were irrational or inconvenient - but ignoring it is not an option: we are talking about more than two million voters here.

Instead, give the angry voters directly what they voted for and accept your loss: it was not evident that enough voters would show up at the referendum, let alone that they would vote against the treaty. It is almost becoming a cliche: nobody expected a Brexit and nobody thought Trump would become president. 

If the reason to ignore the outcome of the referendum is based on the argument that it was 'too easily organised', then we should do something about it: increase the voter-threshold or guarantee that the organisers of the referendum actually are aware of the content as well as implications of the issue at hand before they decide to hold a referendum. And if you feel the turn-out was too low, then tell the 68 percent of the voters that stayed home to please fulfil their democratic duty next time by using their right to vote. 

I certainly regret my decision of having stayed home on the 6th of April. I learned my lesson; next time an overly populistic referendum comes about I certainly won't hesitate to vote. My ballot will serve as a way for me to show my (dis)approval...after all, isn't that what democracy is all about?