On April 6th the Netherlands will have a popular referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The refusal of Yanukovic to sign the EU-Ukraine association agreement in November 2013 (under pressure from Russia) was the trigger event to the EuroMaidan revolution which ultimately overthrew him, and has led to the open and ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The Netherlands is the last country to ratify the agreement, and a popular referendum has been forced through 300,000 people signing an online demand under a brand new law.
Although the vote is not binding on the government, there are of course a great many contrasts to be commented here. Most strikingly, where Ukrainains had to show their support for greater association with Europe through their physical presence in the square, in confrontation with police forces, thugs and the freezing cold, many of them paying with their lives, the Dutch will be able to vote calmly in ballot boxes throughout the country on an issue which touches them only mildly but has potentially significant implications several hundred miles to the south east, in the context of continued Russian occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region and an ongoing physical and propaganda war. Given over 100 people died in the Maidan in the name of Europe and democracy, and many more, Ukrainans and Russians, have died since, the vote in the Netherlands should perhaps be seen as a grave affair.
Yet recent opinion surveys have shown that most Dutch people know very little about the association agreement. They also show a lead for ‘No’, to refuse the agreement. Several of the organisations that called for the referendum have admitted that they do not have a specific interest in the association agreement with the Ukraine as such, but want finally to be able to have a say on European decision making. Indeed, Nigel Farage, one of the faces of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the UK, is travelling to the Netherlands to speak just before the referendum, and has said that a ‘no’ vote there would help in the UK, even if the two issues (for the UK to leave the European Union, or for the Netherlands to refuse the EU-Ukraine association agreement) have next to nothing to do with one another. It is clear that the referendum is firstly being used as a way of expressing discontent with European decision-making and European enlargement in general (the association agreement is regularly presented as a first step towards accession of Ukraine), secondly discontent with ‘elites’ in general, and thirdly as a proxy for expressing an opinion about migration. We may on the 6th April see a blow dealt to democracy in Ukraine by those who claim to be acting for ‘democracy’ in the Netherlands.
Of course it would be a great exaggeration to say that the EuroMaidan has brought democracy to Ukraine. There are also doubtless many problems with the association agreement. Yet a move to push away Ukraine from the EU would be a very serious one in the current context, and not something to be done on a whim, or for disconnected or local reasons. The potential of this happening on the 6th April means that those of us in favour of more democracy in Europe in general need to be much more specific about what we mean. We cannot mean decisive referenda on any issue at any time; we must acknowledge that the will of the people expressed through a vote can only be consultative on some issues (as it will be in the Netherlands), and that this is no fault to democracy, but the sign of a mature democracy in which there is a well-founded confidence in political representatives. At the moment, the confidence is what is lacking and the desire to punish the political establishment is high. We have to be specific about the problems behind this lack of trust: bad decisions, disconnected elites giving the impression of not governing in the interests of the people, lack of transparency and accountability, and above all outmoded political institutions trapped in national logics where the important issues are transnational. These are the primary problems to be dealt with, not the direct participation of people in decision-making, which in a situation of badly-functioning institutions potentially leads to making the problems worse.
We must therefore be particularly careful in thinking through institutional structures and the constitution of publics where the actions of one group of people will have significant implications above all for another group of people, as is the case with the Dutch referendum. Holding the fortunes of others hostage to unconnected and parochial concerns is no democracy: the situation of Ukraine is one example, the situation of migrants to Europe at the moment is another. Many of those who are at the origin of the referendum law in the Netherlands have excellent intentions, and mechanisms for direct democracy are a very important tool. But they are no replacement for designing democratic institutions which are able to govern a highly interconnected Europe in an increasingly connected world, and the people as a whole, in large and complex societies, is no substitute for good politicians.
Watch our discussion ‘Looking for Europe at the margins’ at the Kiev Biennale: