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The Netherlands just said no to Europe. Will we?

Different countries have different politics, but the Dutch referendum may exacerbate fears about turnout and negative campaigning.

By Henry Zeffman Henry Zeffman

We should always be wary of over-interpreting the commonalities between different countries’ politics. As the current convulsions in the US demonstrate in ghastly technicolour, every democracy has its own unique political culture.

Nevertheless, it is at least worth considering whether the Dutch people’s overwhelming rejection of a new treaty between the EU and Ukraine in a referendum yesterday offers any clues to our own referendum outcome on June 23rd.

One aspect of the Dutch referendum that may provoke jitters among Remain campaigners is turnout, which barely surmounted the 30% threshold required for the vote to be valid. Many opponents of Brexit are nervous about whether too much pro-EU opinion is too soft, especially amongst young people who are less likely to vote. Jeremy Corbyn has shown little inclination thus far to use his significant appeal to young voters to the Remain campaign’s advantage, although he is expected to make a big speech on the referendum next week.

Since those who did vote yesterday were by a significant margin (61.1% against 38%) opposed to the Ukraine treaty, it might give some ballast to the idea that the Europe issue only really engages a very small number of people, and those people are more likely to be eurosceptics.

But the key difference between the two votes is that where the British vote is existential, the Dutch vote was about a somewhat arcane aspect of foreign policy. That, plus the fact that the Dutch vote is officially non-binding, surely goes a long way to explaining the minuscule turnout. Still, it would be naïve to imagine that those who voted yesterday had all read a 2,135-page trade deal and returned a diligent verdict – many will have seen it simply as a conduit for expressing their broader frustrations with the European Union.

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The other possible lesson for our campaign is about negative tactics. I have written before about the peculiar denigration of ‘Project Fear’, which helped the Better Together campaign win the 2014 Scottish referendum.  Perhaps yesterday’s vote should give me pause for thought. The Dutch pro-EU campaign was remorselessly negative. Voters were told explicitly that a vote against the treaty with Ukraine was a vote for Putin. Geert Wilders, the leading anti-EU politician, was accused of cosying up to the Russian strongman. For Dutch people, Putin does not represent an abstract threat: 193 of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, shot down over Ukraine, were from the Netherlands. 

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And yet the anti-European sentiment of an eager minority was enough to trump hostility towards the Russian leader. Of course, the Netherlands has form: it rejected a draft EU Constitution in a 2005 referendum (with far higher turnout), only to see the same agreement essentially imposed as the Lisbon Treaty shortly afterwards.  The Remain campaign will be hoping today that Dutch politics really is sui generis.