Dutch referendum: some background

Having been asked by AFOE to write a couple of posts for them in the coming weeks I am both honoured and horrified and apologize in advance for occasionally butchering the English language. A very short introduction: I am a Dutch translator now living in France after 30 odd years of residence in Belgium. I am totally incapable of producing fine scholarly essays but I can do my part of the vox populi pretty well? I hope.

To warm up I offer you some background relevant to the Dutch referendum before the official results start rolling in. First some figures, taken from a Eurostat news report (pdf) that was released today.

Dutch unemployment, while remaining well below the European average of 8,9%, has risen from 4.6% to 5%. By comparison, Poland has 17% unemployment and Ireland 4.2%. Eurostat also mentions that The Netherlands registered the highest relative increase in unemployment rates among the member states together with Portugal (6.5% to 7.2%) and Luxemburg (4.2% to 4.6%). Unemployment among young people in The Netherlands, while fairly high at 9.2%, is still modest compared to the EU average rate of 19%.

The political parties in the Netherlands have declared they will accept the outcome of the consultative referendum. The results can therefore be considered binding. The Christian Democrats (CDA ? Christian Democratic Appeal) still require a turnout of at least 30% for them to accept the result but they revised downwards an earlier required percentage of 60%*.

The English language website of the Dutch House of Representatives offers an overview of its current composition. I include this informative link for those who do not follow Dutch politics closely.

The opinion polls (on May31st). The latest one by Dutch polling guru Maurice de Hond show 38% in favour of and 55% against the European constitutional treaty with a possible turnout of 50%. The TNS Nipo poll gave similar results: 34% Ja, 55% Nee and 11% Do Not Know. Their figures without the Do Not Knows: 38% Ja ? 62% Nee.

Highly educated people are inclined to vote Yes and all the less-educated groups are expected to vote massively No. Main themes in the No camp so far have been the trademarked Polish Plumber, regrets about the euro (notably the undervaluation by 10% of the Dutch guilder at the changeover to the euro), disenchantment with Dutch politics and the current government, the trademarked Blame-it-on-Brussels meme, Turkey, animal rights (not mentioned in constitutional treaty), Dutch sovereignty, the difficulty of the text of the constitutional treaty, the undemocratic nature of the EU and its institutions (not the will of the people), Europe goes too fast, etc.

Also, a certain amount of fear-mongering coming from the Yes camp backfired heavily. In a television campaign the VVD tried to invoke the spectres of the Holocaust and Srebrenica in order to spook the Dutch people into voting Ja. The VVD has withdrawn the spot but plenty of damage was done.

*Alert reader Sierra correctly pointed out to me in comments that this last phrase is bad English. CDA required 60% of the voters to say either Yes or NO. This percentage they revised downwards to 55%. The 30% turnout requirement still stands but has been rendered obsolete by current developments – at 04.00 pm voter turnout was already at 31%.

14 thoughts on “Dutch referendum: some background

  1. Oops, first gaffe. This entry is by me, Guy La Roche. Not that it matters but a “by” followed by a blank space looks rather untidy. Sorry.

  2. “Highly educated people are inclined to vote Yes and all the less-educated groups are expected to vote massively No”.

    This may sound elitist, but it isn’t meant to be: isn’t the whole issue far too abstract to be put to this kind of popular referndum?

    Isn’t this part of the problem?

  3. Edward, I believe the whole issue could have been explained properly by politicians and the media alike. Or, at least, better. Both have failed to do so.

    The major problem, IMHO, is that most people do not have the time to follow politics and technical stuff like this closely. That makes them vulnerable to demagoguery and disinformation, so whatever information they get should be as accurate and objective as possible.

    People are not stupid, regardless of their education levels, they know or feel instinctively if their legs are being pulled or not. The general distrust of politicians, notably in France, The Netherlands and Belgium, is proof of this.

    So, yes, referendums like these are elitist. But they shouldn’t have to be. The world is getting more and more complex and a large number of people are left behind when it comes to proper information. And that is a highly uncomfortable situation, to say the least.

    BTW, when it comes to ignorance I am the first to admit to that. Even when I try to stay ‘informed’.

  4. ..shouldn’t there be a blog called the Polish Plumber?

    Didn’t Jeremy Irons already make the film :).

  5. Nice summing-up of the situation. Just wanted to say that I have hardly seen The Polish Pumber (TM) in the Dutch debate. All the other issues: yes, and for sure uneasiness about the fast enlargement played a role in the background, but it would be wrong to suggest that the Polish plumber was as present in the Dutch debate as he was in the French debate.

    Turn-out looks like it is going to be high – well, higher than for the last European elections when it was 39%. The last poll last night showed the gap between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ was narrowing fast, but probably not fast enough for a ‘yes’ outcome.

  6. This may sound elitist, but it isn’t meant to be: isn’t the whole issue far too abstract to be put to this kind of popular referndum?

    1. If a lay person of normal intellegence cannot understand a constitution, that in itself is a damning fact.

    2. What exactly is the issue? When we consider the implications for the Euro, relations to China and any number of issues we will never agree on priorities. In fact we would come to the conclusion that the future is unpredictable. For the voters picking their reasons is as legitimate as for anybody else and better than loyalty to a political party, which would be the alternative. This is only in the smallest part about the actual text or mechanism of the constitution.

    3. Why would abstractness be a problem? On the contrary, having a referendum about very concrete things like the tax on coffee would be rediculous.

  7. “(CDA ? Christian Democratic Appeal) still require a turnout of at least 30% for them to accept the result but they revised downwards an earlier required percentage of 60%.”

    I regret nitpicking your English, but this sounds like the Christian Democrats wanted a turnout of 60%. In case people misunderstand, the CDA wanted a “yes” or a “no” of 60% or greater before they’d take the result seriously. This has now been revised down to 55%.

    To your list of No themes, I’d add the complaint that the Dutch pay by far the most into the EU. I wouldn’t have said animal rights was at all a big issue. The Party for the Animals have got a lot of posters up but that doesn’t mean people are paying much attention to them. Same goes for the Polish Plumber.

    Edward, I agree with Guy on the referendum topic being explainable. A lot of people complained it was too complex but, then again, national elections cover even more ground. Both campaigns started too late. Voters started looking at irrelevant topics partly because of the lack of information.

    The campaigns were also very poorly managed. When the politicians finally did start talking, they put out a lot of contradictory information and panic stories. There were endless statements like, “the Constitution is bad for the environment.” “No! The Constitution is good for the environment”. The voters didn’t know who to believe.

    By the time the shouters had grown hoarse and a factual debate started to emerge last week, it was too late. Voters did not have time to inform themselves even if they were so inclined. And that’s the other thing, despite our founder status and usually very pro-European attitude, most people plain aren’t interested in Europe.

  8. Sierra, nitpick at your heart’s content for you are absolutely right! Second gaffe of my first day. The “result” had to be either 60% in favor or against.

  9. “having a referendum about very concrete things like the tax on coffee would be rediculous.”

    I don’t know, at least we’d know how to interpret the results. I still don’t really know what the French vote means. My impression as the day goes on, is that Sarkozy is going to be the powerhouse in the new French government. So the French get a new government comitted to economic liberalism (which is fine by me), but is that what they voted for?

    When I say abstract, I mean that the EU is a kind of meta problem, given that most EU citizens are focused on their national identity, and not their european one.

    Those who are focused on their european rather than national identities tend to be intellectuals.

    What I mean is that in this sense the EU is a kind of ‘meta problem’. It is about the class of classes, which you tend to reason about, and most people don’t like to focus on this type of problem, they would rather focus on members of the class, like the fact that coffee got to be more expensive after the ‘Teuro’ was introduced.

    Also belonging feelings, on the affective level, tend to be national. So in a peculiar way you are asking voters to prioritise the cognitive over the affective. If this is the case, it is going to be hard, uphill work, however simple the text itself is. Sorry if this sounds like a load of pretensious intellectual nonsense. It probably is.

  10. When I say abstract, I mean that the EU is a kind of meta problem, given that most EU citizens are focused on their national identity, and not their european one.
    Those who are focused on their european rather than national identities tend to be intellectuals.

    But precisely that drives many. If you take this vote as an expression of the priority of national identity over the european identity than you better go and accept the fact as it is. You want to presuppose the result.

    So in a peculiar way you are asking voters to prioritise the cognitive over the affective.

    You always do. At least when it matters.

  11. Indeed, the issues *could* have been explained far better than they were now. Essentially the government attempted a Rovian campaign: short, sharp, manipulative, saturation bombardment. They did not spend months sincerely informing the voters of the issues. The voters, naturally, resented being manipulated by the most unpopular government in recent memory.

    – A “yes” voter…

  12. The chief arguments for european integration have been in the “meta” domain. There had been a largely succesful attempt to associate it with the positive values of unity, culture and peace. The economic side of the EU was always sold as a way, not an aim. Which was a necessary strategy, as a project of this significance needs an emotional appeal to be feasible.

    If that appeal is becoming threadbare an immediate switch to a completely factual discussion will always cause a backlash as voters will realise that they have been lied to.
    You cannot have it both ways.

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