The Dutch did it! In a development that, apart from Gatestone Institute, very few international media outlets anticipated, the Dutch people have just become the first in EU history to mount an EU referendum -- the subject being the Dutch government's ratification of the Association Treaty between the EU and Ukraine, which took place without consulting the Dutch people.
Prior referenda on the EU, such as the ones held by the Netherlands and France on whether or not to implement a European constitution in 2005 -- as well as future referenda such as the British one about leaving the EU, to be held by the end of 2017 -- have always been reluctantly initiated by national governments, not by the people themselves.
Within a time frame of six weeks, a campaign, initiated and led by the largest Dutch blog, GeenStijl.nl, gathered more than 423,000 signatures, with only 300,000 needed to mount the referendum. By law, the referendum will have to be held within six months.
The referendum concerns the Association Treaty between the EU and Ukraine, ratified by the Dutch government this summer. The process was conducted with next to no debate about the issue and without consulting the Dutch population, even as many Dutch citizens seemed to oppose the treaty.
According to the treaty [art. 453] Dutch citizens will have to pay financial aid to the Ukrainian government - rumored to be among the most corrupt governments of the European continent -- because: "Ukraine [is] eligible for financial assistance through the relevant EU-mechanisms and instruments for financial aid." Strangely, the treaty does not specify how this aid money is to be spent. So why should Dutch taxpayers be keen to write a blank check to a foreign government rumored to be corrupt?
In addition, the treaty [art. 19] would imply the creation of a visa-free travel arrangement between Ukraine and EU member states. As Ukraine is also reported to be a major hub for human trafficking, one of the "largest suppliers of slave labor in Europe" and one Europe's most important transit countries for international drug trafficking, it may be understandable if the Dutch might prefer to oppose an unrestricted travel arrangement between Ukraine and the EU.
In addition, Ukraine is in a state of civil war, and also in a state of war (by proxy) with the continent's strongest military power, Russia. The treaty would therefore imply Dutch involvement in this conflict: as the treaty [art. 2] repeatedly states: "The promotion of respect for the values of sovereignty and national integrity, the impermeability of borders and independence (...) compose the essential elements of this Treaty."
Since Russia's annexation of Crimea can very much so be explained as violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, the treaty implies that the Netherlands will have to contribute to the undoing this violation.
Also, Ukraine has a strong far-right political undercurrent that might not be compatible with the Dutch political culture.
In short, in a democracy, the Dutch people should have been consulted before ratifying a treaty of this magnitude. That did not happen. And even more shockingly, some Dutch elected members of parliament didn't bother to read the Treaty either. Alexander Pechtold, leader of centrist D66 Party, one of the biggest opponents of this referendum, and one of the fiercest pro-EU figures within the Dutch parliament, casually admitted on camera that he never read the treaty before voting in favor of it.
Dutch law, regrettably, only allowed this treaty to be subjected to an advisory referendum. This means that even if the Dutch people overwhelmingly vote this treaty down, the government can still choose to ignore that outcome.
However, if the Dutch people vote this treaty down, but the government chooses to ignore this, it would send a clear signal that there is a democratic deficit likely to bring down the already fragile Dutch cabinet, which consists of the Tory and Labour party. There is more.
The referendum will coincide with the Dutch EU-chairmanship from January to June 2016. Understandably, Dutch cabinet ministers -- all of them pro-EU minded -- are now in a bit of a panic about how to avoid the referendum having its expected negative outcome.
Whether or not the Dutch government will launch a counter-campaign in favor of the treaty, is now being fiercely debated.
Making matters even more volatile, it is rumored that the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, might be initiating a bid to become the next President of the EU. Should he apply for the position, a Dutch referendum that could disrupt EU policy this gravely might look problematic on his resumé.
Sources within the cabinet are already claiming that the referendum is a "thorn in their sides."
The current referendum will send a strong message about democracy to the unaccountable, unelected and untransparent European Commission and the EU as a whole.
For more than a decade, national sovereignty has been gradually taken away from the people of Europe. The only reason the EU was able to bleed so much sovereignty from the people, was that apparently the public did not fully understand or care sufficiently about what was happening to their countries or what was being taken from them. Those who did care were evidently not able to educate others quickly or effectively enough.
The EU presumably knows full well that the model that enabled this referendum can easily be duplicated for future referenda. If the Dutch can do it, so can the citizens of other EU member states. And If they do, the EU, which seems to have gotten into the habit of making policies with impunity, may have to start returning national sovereignty to where, in democracies, it rightly belongs: the people.