The referendum to be held on Wednesday in the Netherlands on the EU's association agreement with Ukraine is a puzzling affair in many ways. Initiated by Eurosceptic groups, it has, at times, seemed less to do with geopolitics than with a publicity stunt for GeenStijl, the rightwing satirical website which launched the campaign in the first place.
The animating idea was to confound the EU over its supposed lack of democracy, by organising a petition that would force a direct popular vote on a question that could pit the voters against Brussels. That was achieved when more than 400,000 signatures were collected. The topic of the referendum, an EU treaty strengthening ties with Ukraine, seems to have been chosen almost offhand - as the organisers of the petition have recently conceded themselves.
Polls show "no" is in the lead. That is only the first reason why the Dutch government is playing down the vote's significance. In late February, a survey showed that around half the Dutch public wasn't even aware there was to be a referendum. Turnout is expected to be low. An added twist is that the referendum is non-binding - which leaves the Dutch government with the potentially awkward choice of ignoring its outcome. Given all this - and with general elections due in one year - it may be no surprise that the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, has refrained from campaigning decisively for "yes".
But wishing the plebiscite away does not answer the challenge it poses. Rightwing populists across Europe are framing the referendum as a wider test for the EU project itself. The Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage in the UK (who spots a potential boost for Brexit) have both come out for "no". Unsurprisingly, Russia is paying close attention. Its state-controlled media and troll factories are actively vying for "no", although such propaganda may not do much good with an electorate still traumatised by the downing of the MH17 plane over Ukraine in 2014, in which 193 Dutch citizens perished.
A "no" vote would be an embarrassment for the Dutch government and it would damage the EU's strategic choice of helping Ukraine stabilise, even if its political partners there were compromised - as the Panama Papers have reminded us this week. Eurosceptic Dutch groups who claim they want to "save democracy" in Europe are in effect trying to undermine an agreement meant to ultimately consolidate democracy in the eastern part of the continent.
Referendums are often tricky. This is the first time Dutch voters have had the opportunity to express their feelings about the EU since 2005, when they rejected the European constitution. In such votes, the electorate doesn't necessarily answer the question put to it, but is tempted to express grievances on other matters. Non-binding votes are especially tricky. They become a sampling of public opinion with blurry effects - as the November 2014 "citizen participation" process in Catalonia showed.
Referendums are arguably a bad habit for Europe to develop. Taken as an expression of the will of the people, they can have real meaning when strategic choices are at stake, and well debated. But if organised recklessly, they amount to a denial of representative democracy. The Dutch parliament has already voted in favour of the EU-Ukraine agreement. That is what should guide the government.
Editorial, The Guardian
Related materials: Referendum in the Netherlands