As Dutch media announced this week, a first opinion poll conducted by a public TV programme EenVandaag showed that a majority of Dutch citizens may vote against the Association agreement with Ukraine in the referendum planned for 6 April 2016. Our colleague Joop van Holsteyn, special professor in electoral research at Leiden University, has warned that it cannot be established how representative the EenVandaag polls are, as they are based on a self-selected panel of citizens. Yet he also stressed that the results suggest the 30 per cent threshold for the validity of the results of the referendum would be easily reached based on these first results. As he also noted the government has so far allocated meagre funds for campaigning, likely with the idea that citizens would not come out and vote.
This attitude by Dutch politicians, if this is indeed the government’s campaign plan, brings uncomfortable memories of their approach to the Constitutional treaty referendum, for which campaigning was both short and uninspired. We all know how this ended up.
Commission President Juncker appeared to advocate for a more pro-active approach, Juncker suggesting in an interview for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper that the government should defend the agreement they have signed. He warned that a Europe-wide crisis could be precipitated by a Dutch ‘no’ in the advisory referendum.
The arguments for the Association agreement need to be put clearly on the table and some of the myths spread by the initiators should be discussed openly. Contrary to what the initiators of the referendum have claimed, the agreement does not open the door to Ukrainian EU membership in the short or even medium term. As we have argued here, the EU has been very careful to leave relations with Ukraine open-ended. The initiators also claim that the treaty will lead to the provision of millions of financial assistance to Ukraine. They set the question of rejecting it as an issue of national identity and sovereignty, as well as material interest. As we know from public opinion analyses in Europe, perceived material interests and identity are the most important determinants of public opinion trends. So the initiators of the referendum and their arguments should be taken seriously, despite their selective approach to the facts. A rational presentation of counter-arguments may not suffice. For those of us who see the Association agreement as a useful tool for supporting much needed reforms in Ukraine, need to discuss the implications for stability and security in Europe and also the Netherlands (including migration) in case the agreement is rejected.
Furthermore, the broader implications of the politicisation of the ratification of the agreement should be considered. The EU – and the Netherlands , in the Council of Ministers -is negotiating with a number of Western Balkan candidates for membership. In mid-December 2015, the EU opened the first two chapters of negotiations with Serbia, marking some real progress after a year of stagnation. Serbs see this as a historic step, an achievement they have reached, paid for with difficult compromises over Kosovo. The opening of the next two chapters, 23 and 24: on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Justice, Freedom and Security, is expected to take place in the first half of 2016.
The EU’s influence on Serbian foreign policy, however, is precarious and seen by many to depend on further progress in accession negotiations. As our research in discourses on EU membership in Serbia has shown, many Serb citizens see relations with Kosovo as the most painful step their country has to take on the road to membership. The high domestic cost of concessions on Kosovo means that Serbian leaders may not be able to maintain commitment to reforms for a very long period of time. Therefore, they have set for themselves the ambitious goal to be ready for membership in 2020.
Back to the Dutch referendum and its implications for this process: if the Association agreement is rejected – not for legal, but for political reasons some Dutch political parties may follow a negative referendum result – EU’s conditionality in enlargement would be much less credible. Serbia and other current candidates may, with good reason, ask themselves whether they are willing to pay the cost of adjusting to the EU when their accession could be put on hold in a similar referendum in the future. After all, accession treaties still require unanimity to come into force. Another good reason for Dutch political parties to campaign vigorously in the current referendum – and for the government to inform its citizens more regularly of progress and decisions reached in enlargement negotiations.