What the UK can learn from the Dutch referendum

With just under three months to go the EU referendum, the low turnout and overwhelming majority against the Ukraine-EU Association Treaty in a Dutch referendum is not a good omen. It is a good moment to take stock. The campaign is about to start, with the official designation of the Remain and Leave campaigns due soon. What lessons can the UK learn from the Dutch referendum experience?

The good news first: the UK referendum really matters, whereas the Dutch one did not. The Ukraine-EU Association Treaty is important geopolitically but for the average Dutch voter, ratification will not change their daily lives. It allowed them a protest vote seemingly without consequence. Those that could bother to vote – less than a third of voters, with many supporters staying at home in the hope that the required 30% threshold would be missed – predictably took that opportunity with both hands.

Here, the EU referendum will have a very real impact on people’s daily lives. That should focus minds but there is a risk: a referendum is rarely about the subject on the ballot paper. Only when the question is crystal clear and on a topic of relevance to the voters will the campaign focus on that. The Scottish referendum campaign was a good example of where that worked well. Everybody could relate to the question at hand and because it was such a momentous decision, people were extremely engaged in the debate.

The Dutch referendum was the opposite. Even those who gathered the signatures to call the referendum said they could not care less about Ukraine. They wanted to send a signal about European overreach and Brussels’ democratic deficit.

This is a big risk for the UK referendum, too. The EU rarely makes it into the top ten issues voters are concerned about, according to polls. The question of the benefits of EU membership to the UK is clear to those who have studied the issue but that is also the problem. How common rules make it easier to export products and services or to catch criminals is not easy to relate to nor easy to explain in a one-minute soundbite on the News at Six.

That is why voters say they want to know the facts before making up their mind. They do not understand the debate yet but want to do so before they decide – if they decide, that is. If you look at the top five questions on Google about the EU referendum, they include “what is Brexit” and “what is the EU referendum”.

Yet facts in politics are a slippery business. There are two undisputed ones: there will be a referendum and it will decide the UK’s EU membership. Other facts are varying shades of conjecture. The UK economy will probably be better off inside the EU, based on historical evidence and given the existing deep trading relations, particularly in services. The UK will probably be safer inside the EU, because it makes police and intelligence cooperation easier if you work within a common framework. The UK is probably more influential as part of the EU, the world’s largest trading block, than as a lone voice. That is also what our non-EU allies, like the US, are saying.

“Probablys” do not get the heart pumping. As a result, it becomes about sentiment and trust. People will seek ways to relate the EU to them in unpredictable ways – that is where immigration and the myths about remote Eurocrats and straight bananas come in. They will also think about who do they trust more. If someone you trust, like Boris Johnson or a former head of MI6, start passionately saying that things will be better outside the EU, you will start to doubt what the other side is saying.

That is the biggest lesson from the Dutch referendum: a lacklustre campaign could turn those individual headwinds into a perfect storm for Remain. The Dutch government did not mount a major campaign in favour and activity among individual ministers and other political parties in favour varied widely. It meant the majority stayed at home, allowing all but the most passionate opponents the chance to make their mark. That is a major risk for the UK too.

Britain Stronger In Europe will have to overcome the enthusiasm gap with the passionate Leavers to get the supportive majority to the polls. It will also have to find ways to better relate the campaign outcome to people’s daily lives to increase that majority. This is a tough challenge given decades of myth-making about how funny rules from Brussels affect ordinary people. With the stakes this high for the UK, no one can afford Dutch apathy and complacency come our referendum in June.

* Henk van Klaveren is a public affairs consultant at and a former Liberal Democrat press officer.

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8 Comments

  • I am interested to know whether any hostility towards the Ukraine issue was related to the huge loss of Dutch lives on MH17 ?

    Regarding our referendum, I don’t think, at this stage, there is going to be an issue of lack of interest in the UK, there may well be a issue with the negativity of the campaign on both sides. I think if the battle is to be on negativity we are in danger of Brexit. Even those of us who support the EU could name significant negatives. We need our leaders to be selling the positives…..

  • This should be a wake up for BSiE for the reasons you give, but am fearful they will heed it.
    Personally, I thought the Dutch referendum over a yrade allaunce was just a spiteful piece of opportunism from eurosceptics – what has ukraine sone other than to have dared to believe that the west would help it?
    However, the tv shots of sharp suited well heeled types cavorting with their
    champagne at getting their ‘victory’ will at least double my resolve to go and vote here.

  • I don’t think Poroshenko being on the PanamaPapers list helped matters.

  • Steve, it wasn’t a major part of the debate, as far I know but some of the people behind the Guido Fawkes-style website that got the signatures to trigger this referendum certainly subscribe to some conspiracy theories. See this article, for example: http://www.smh.com.au/world/mh17-conspiracy-theories-about-ukraine-swirl-in-dutch-referendum-20160322-gnp33g.html

  • I can’t think of a UK referendum where the side representing change from the status quo won where it was not also the settled or tacit position of the government of the day. That said, I hope that the Remain campaign learns the lessons of the Scottish referendum and learns them well: an acrimonious campaign leading to a small margin of victory for Remain could be a very difficult scenario.

    I do not think enough is yet being done to persuade young people to vote in this referendum – as things stand, in very broad terms, a generation overwhelmingly in favour of staying in is at risk of being yanked out against its wishes, and will have to spend the time longest dealing with the consequences. A positive Remain campaign able to enthuse the under-forties will be a very good sign indeed, I think.

  • No idea why when the alternative of being part of EEA/EFTA is so much more progressive and internationalist. This orthodoxy of EU good/modern/progressive and anything else akin to embracing cultural philistinism is killing the Lib Dems.

  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Apr '16 - 6:59pm

    Henk, you seem to be arguing that somebody who questions the official narrative is a cosnpiracy theorist.

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