Support 110 years of independent journalism.

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.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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. 

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. 

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action