Alphen, Netherlands. 7 April. On the face of it yesterday’s referendum here in the Netherlands involved a few people in a relatively small country voting against an arcane and complex EU agreement with Ukraine about which very few know very much. The result was clear; 61.1% voted ‘nee’, whilst only 38.2% voted ‘ja’, albeit on a turnout of just 32.2%, slightly above the 30% needed to make the vote valid under Dutch law. Dutch Premier Mark Rutte has acknowledged that the vote must “be taken into account”, and that ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement cannot take now place in its current form. What are the implications of this vote?
If one wants to understand the importance of Ukraine to the future stability of Europe then look at a map. ‘Free’ Europe is in competition with President Putin’s Russia over the future order of power and governance in Europe. This reality was brought home to me the other day when I addressed members of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev. Moreover, it is also clear that Ukraine is the battleground in which this silent and no-so-silent battle is taking place.
It is a battle of ideas. The EU seeks an elite-led ‘community’ of European states and peoples as the defining organising principle of power in twenty-first century Europe. President Putin, rather, wants a good old-fashioned Russian sphere of influence in which ‘influence’ is simply defined by the reach of Moscow’s power in its many and too often nefarious ways.
Ukraine is a front-line state in this strategic contest. After all, it was the prospect of the Association Agreement that triggered the Maidan protests and which led President Putin to act to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. Without the prospect of an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement the Russian ‘hybrid’ invasions of Crimea and the Donbass would not have taken place. Nor would the criminal 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17 and with it the murder of almost 200 Dutch citizens.
Now, let me turn to democracy in the EU. The other week I shared a platform with Thierry Baudet, the sponsor of yesterday’s referendum at a meeting of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. Thierry is impressive and courageous, and not surprisingly despised by much of the rubber-stamp Dutch Establishment for what he has done. He also has a point. Too often we European citizens vote for politicians in our own countries who, because they have handed power and sovereignty to an unaccountable Brussels elite over and above our heads, have little meaningful influence. ‘Democracy’ in the EU is fast becoming a sham, a pretence in which unless people vote for ever more EU and thus ever less nation-state their voting slips might as well be cast straight into the garbage.
The resulting democratic deficit is leading to two developments. First, the rise of so-called ‘populist’ parties, i.e. political movements deemed ‘populist’ by the elite precisely because they reflect the legitimate concerns of huge numbers of disempowered citizens. Second, the growing use of referenda as a desperate attempt to hold said elite to account. Indeed, how to hold an ever-more distant EU elite to democratic account was the real reason for Thierry Baudet’s referendum. It is also the central issue in the coming Brexit referendum, which is really about traditional English concerns about who controls distant power that date back to at least 1215 and Magna Carta (or more accurately 1265 and Simon de Montfort’s ‘Parleymont’).
Therefore, on the face of it Thierry is absolutely right to demand a referendum on the issue of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. This is because the Agreement is already being implemented BEFORE it has been ratified by EU member-states. Again, on the face of it, such arrogance by the EU elite is outrageous and demonstrates all too clearly the contempt in which said elite hold democracy. However, the problem is that precisely because ‘free’ Europe is in strategic competition with Russia and the EU Association Agreement is the only tool available to prevent Ukraine becoming a slave to Russian interests then Brussels (with Berlin and Paris) on this occasion had to act quickly.
So, what will now happen? Nothing, for the same reasons I reject Brexit. Right now, at this moment in European history, the need to counter Russian ambitions trumps my concerns about the autocratic tendencies of the EU elite. That the EU elite have such autocratic ‘we know best’ tendencies must not be doubted. In 2005 the Dutch tried to stop ‘ever closer union’ by voting against the proposed EU Constitutional Treaty. The Brussels elite simply ignored the plebiscite, made a few minor cosmetic adjustments (à la Cameron), and re-issued the ‘Constitution’ as the 2007 Lisbon Treaty.
The tragedy is that these two issues have become entwined and intertwined in Thierry Baudet’s referendum. Real democracy desperately needs re-invigorating within the EU. However, such re-invigoration can only take place at the national level. Unwelcome though it may be for the EU elite it is the nation-state with which the massive majority of ordinary Europeans identify and which for them provides the only really legitimate ‘polis’ and ‘demos’. That is why the EU elite is in conflict with Europe’s peoples. Equally, Ukraine desperately needs and deserves the Association Agreement. In other words, Thierry has made an important point AND President Putin will be happy.
There is one final irony about yesterday’s referendum – I could not vote in it. As a British citizen who has lived outside the UK for many years I have lost the right to vote in any British election, including the upcoming Brexit referendum. As a European citizen living in the Netherlands I am denied the right to vote in all Dutch elections, including elections for the European Parliament, save that of the most local of local elections. As a democrat to be so profoundly disenfranchised breaks my heart.
What Thierry’s referendum points to is the need for a new political settlement within the EU that returns power to the states and makes the European Council the true and only legitimate body of the EU. That means a new EU treaty. It also reinforces the need to give Ukraine a future for all our sakes.