How the Dutch Referendum Killed EU enlargement

8 April, 2016

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How the Dutch Referendum Killed EU enlargement

Photo credit (©) AP

On Wednesday, around 2.5 mio. Dutch voters rejected the EU-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (61.59% yes, turnout 32.2%). In effect, a small minority of less than 0.5% has become a veto player for an agreement affecting more than half a billion people.

There are serious problems both with such a small minority being able to stall EU wide projects and with having direct democracy on issues such as trade agreements. However, the question here is what it means for further EU enlargement.

The first responses by the main Dutch governing parties, suggests that they will not go ahead with the ratification of the agreement, despite the fact that the referendum was merely consultatory.

Both the outcome and the response of political parties is deeply troubling in its consequences for EU enlargement. If the statement by European commission president Junker during the confirmation hearings that enlargement would not happen under his term, was a statement of intent (and the obvious), this vote might kill enlargement for the foreseeable future.

The vote on the Ukraine was not about the trade deal, but about an opportunity to sabotage the EU by Eurosceptics, with a bit of fear about cooperating with a corrupt and war-torn country. Mostly, the trade agreement has marginal effects on the Netherlands and certainly no argument could be made that the agreement is opening the door for the Ukraine joining the EU anytime soon. Thus, even on an issue which most Dutch don’t care about, the referendum gave an opportunity to throw a wrench into the EU machinery. If the issue were an accession agreement, such as with any country of the Western Balkans, the risk of rejection would considerably greater. Opposition would not only be fed by some broad Euroscepticism, but also by the fact that 63% of Dutch citizens are against enlargement (EU average 51%, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria and Finland have a higher ratio of enlargement skeptics).

As a result, there would be an even stronger risk of rejection in a referendum. The argument of corruption and “difficult” statehood could also be employed for the Western Balkans. Considering that also France has threatened a referendum on future enlargement, there is a real risk that any enlargement will be blocked by a Eurosceptic electorate in those—or other—countries. Thus, in current circumstances, especially if the governments and parliament of the Netherlands just roll over and accept the referendum result, enlargement is effectively dead.

This destructive dynamic can change only in the following circumstances:

First, if countries abandon referenda on such issues—in the current climate unlikely and unpopular. Governments and parliaments will be accused of being undemocratic and disregarding popular will. In a climate of strong anti-system parties, populism and Euroskepticism a high risk approach for incumbents.

Second, the support for the EU and enlargement increases in the coming years and more people would vote yes or boycott such referenda. This also seems unlikely, but not impossible and has a lot to do with economic performance in member states and the ability of the EU master some of the larger crises. Both of course are big ifs.

Third, the governments would disregard the outcomes, after all the results are just consultative. This is politically difficult, but imaginable, and probably the worst of both both worlds. Citizens will feel cheated, yet governments will try to come up with some face saving deal, as the British government did in the run up to the Brexit vote or Denmark did after the first anti-Maastricht vote more than two decades ago.

For enlargement to be put to parliaments of the member states and potentially to referenda, it will take many more years. Thus, circumstances may change. However, if this challenge is not met head on, enlargement is not only dead, it also is going to be derailed not by the lack of reform in the Western Balkans, or the lack of a merit driven process, but by some EU member states not sticking to their side of the bargain, if you fulfill the criteria and reform, you will become a member. As long as this uncertainty looms over the process—even if all criteria are met and if 27 EU member countries ratify the accession agreement, one can and mostly likely will derail the process—enlargement is at beast limping along, and at worst, dead.

Written by:
  • Florian Bieber Director, Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz
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