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The contradictions of the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine

As the day of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands on the Association agreement with Ukraine nears, the bulk of the commentary seems to focus on the campaign, its trends and its context rather than the referendum question and the agreement it addresses. There have been lots of commentaries focusing on the geopolitics of the referendum, evaluating Russia’s possible attitude or role, as for example this recent piece  assessing a potential ‘no’ vote as a symbolic victory for Russia. Many analysts note the passive stance taken by the Dutch government and political parties of the government coalition who, after all, participated in the negotiations of the agreement that started all the way back in 2008. In a highly critical post, Judy Dempsey denounces the lackluster campaign by Dutch and European politicians and the lack of visible commitment to the  treaty and the values it embodies (rather than just trade) by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte himself. In terms of the implications of the referendum results, there is little agreement on the significance of a potential ‘no’ vote. Some, consider the whole exercise to be meaningless, as given the advisory nature of the referendum, the government could ignore the results if they are negative.This post by Korteweg provides an overview of recent history of both the agreement and the Dutch referendum and of potential scenarios after the referendum.

Yet, as Kristof Jacobs pointed out in the SRV blog and also in a debate we held yesterday, the political consequences of ignoring a possible ‘no’ vote would be much wider  and harder to ignore than the legal ones. Both domestic and international consequences could be quite broad and far reaching. At least one of the government coalition parties, the Social Democrats, has committed to respecting the outcome of the referendum. Changing the wording of the Association agreement to satisfy the Dutch voters would also be quite problematic: in a total of 486 articles and 179 pages without the annexes, identifying which bits would have been found objectionable by Dutch votes in case of a ‘no’ majority would be difficult. The EU’s credibility in other international settings and policies, such as the revised European Neighborhood Policy or even ongoing enlargement process with the Western Balkans, would be compromised.

If we accept that future accessions or associations will become more and more politicized, as found in our enlargement assessment project maxcap (see here), we should try to take the question of the referendum seriously and evaluate, to the best of our current knowledge, what effects the Association agreement might have. Given its scope and the fact that establishing a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area is quite a novel enterprise, as shown in this legal analysis, effects are difficult to estimate ex ante. The political reform provisions in the treaty, however, are both far-reaching and promising, in the clear commitment to domestic reforms in Ukraine (art 6), extensive requirements for transparency and the planned involvement of civil society (articles 299, 443). All other things being equal (which is not a given in Ukraine’s neighbourhood), the Agreement will provide both a roadmap and a set of incentives for reforms in democratic governance, as the EU has done in the past for countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia. It will be up to Ukrainian policy makers and politicians to take this opportunity. Yet rejecting the treaty by means of a negative vote in the Netherlands, or letting it exist in some kind of legal and political limbo while the Dutch government decides how to react to a potential negative result, would sap what energy and determination exist for reforms in Ukraine. So paradoxically, if we assume that at least some of the initiators of the Dutch referendum care about democracy and citizens, their democratic impulse might kill the attempts to make democracy mean something in Ukraine. This would be a strange outcome indeed.


Enlargement, Uncategorized

Time for domestic political debate on future EU enlargement

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.



Euro, Uncategorized

Dutch Labour says Greek referendum would be a deal breaker or democracy a la carte

European integration a la carte, where members would pick and choose which European Union policies they participate in would be the end of the EU, so goes a familiar argument in European integration studies. Even though we do have some member states opting out of some policies (most notably Britain, Sweden and Denmark from EMU), this has been considered by many a construction that, if applied across the board, would unravel the fabric of the EU and undermine the members’ commitment to comply with everything they have commonly agreed to, or , in EU speak, to apply the acquis communautaire.

This of course is valid for any system of interrelated rules where it is important that the bulk of these rules is applied equally. Democracy would be a good example. Treaty after treaty we have been trying to make the EU more democratic and to install some of the principles of the democracy at the supranational level. However, after years of talking about how to make the EU more democratic and countless pages written to explain the democratic deficit, to me it boils down to the crucial possibility to choose between governments (‘throwing the bastards out’) and policies which is still, at the EU level, not present. Now the Greek Prime Minister is apparently contemplating asking the citizens to approve some of the most far reaching reforms in Greek history – as well as, of course, the manner in which they will pay their debt. It seems as if it is the latter which has upset (‘shocked’ was the word used by many newspaper headlines) leaders in Europe. PvDA prominent Plasterk has even declared that his party will not support the vote on the package in Parliament if the Greeks hold a referendum. This is of course a demonstration of the trilemma between democracy, financial globalisation and national sovereignty which we wrote about a few posts back (see also here). As Henry Farrell argues in Crooked Timber, instead of a disaster, it may be the most positive development for the future of democracy in Europe. Yes, it would lead to new uncertainty. But politicians in Europe have procrastinated long enough, also on democratic grounds. They may do well to remember that they may like their electorate to have a voice if it ever comes to reforms as far reaching as what Greece needs to do.

I do not entirely share Farrell’s optimism that a much better package can be devised for the Greek reforms. My experience from Bulgaria suggests that whatever support is provided for economic growth, there is a bitter pill of reforms  to be swallowed before things start getting better. In this sense, I do not think it is the Greek public’s democratic right to refuse to pay their country’s debt or to exercise some kind of invented non-existent option where someone invests a lot of money in Greece without asking for changes and austerity in return. The actual realistic choices that the Greeks have are few. However, it is only right that the citizens who will bear this burden inform themselves of the alternatives and have the chance to have their say. It could be that then they will also feel some joint responsibility ( as opposed to blaming the EU, Germany or their own government for having to pay the debt) not to oppose  the next set of reforms. Arguments why we, in the rest of Europe, should be against this, can only be made from the perspective of the markets and represent a confirmation of the trilemma mentioned earlier. But leaving the markets aside for a moment, blaming the Greeks for taking the time to deal with the momentous decisions ahead democratically appears to me hypocritical (what about Dutch voters in such a situation?) and against the spirit of trying to transplant some democratic principles to supranational decision making. If we are serious about making the EU more democratic, then we must at some point give citizens choices about EU decisions which really matter to them.


Britain and the European Union

The Guardian reports:

“David Cameron is bracing himself for the biggest rebellion since he took office, with possible frontbench resignations, when Tory MPs defy No 10 to vote in favour of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership on Monday.”

Cameron says he agrees with the idea of a referendum in principle but cannot support it because of the coalition and the Liberal Democrats. We all feel his pain… If only those Liberals weren’t in the way, he would go to Brussels this very minute, bang on the table, withdraw Britain’s EU membership, get her money back, close borders to French and German goods, impose duties on the import of Dutch Gouda and Spanish chorizo, stop British students from going to Barcelona for those bohemian Erasmus exchanges, bring his policemen back from EUROPOL in the Hague, leave the single European sky, send back all those Polish plumbers, and re-introduce restrictions on cross-border financial transfers. If only…

I find Britain’s position on European integration rather hypocritical. I am pretty sure that even the Tories would prefer a world in which the EU exists to a world in which it doesn’t. But what they would like best is a world in which the EU exists but the UK is free-riding on the single market and the common policies. Take the benefits from free trade and let someone else pay for the externalities.