Christopher Hill, a Cambridge professor of International Relations, once suggested that public opinion in relation to foreign policy was a bit like the Loch Ness monster – a mythical creature, often talked about but rarely seen. Yesterday it reared its ugly head. Dutch voters rejected the European Union–Ukraine association agreement in a referendum, delivering a severe blow to European solidarity and further damaging the efforts of 28 governments to form a coherent foreign policy.

‘Public opinion’ in this case, according to the preliminary results of the referendum, represents about 60% of those Dutch voters who participated in the referendum. With turnout just over 30%, which incidentally was the threshold for a valid referendum, this amounts to roughly 2.5 million votes in an EU of 508 million citizens. Given that the other 27 EU member states have already ratified the agreement, that it already passed a vote in the Dutch parliament, that the referendum is non-binding in character, and that some of the association agreement’s provisions are already in effect, the immediate political challenge is to find a way forward that simultaneously acknowledges the reality of the outcome without wrecking the EU’s agenda for stability and reform in Ukraine.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who publicly supported the agreement, said in an initial reaction, ‘my view is that if the turnout is more than 30%, with such a victory for the “No” camp, ratification [of the association agreement] cannot go ahead without discussion.’ With final results due in a few days, there is little time for Rutte to coordinate within his government and across the EU. In any case, what matters more is the bigger picture.

The Dutch referendum was hijacked by emotions. While the question in front of voters was formally on whether or not they supported the association agreement with Ukraine, even the initiators of the referendum went on record to say that Ukraine did not matter. They wanted the referendum to be a vote on the EU more broadly and an opportunity to vent their general anger.

Instead of the alleged democratic deficit in the EU, leaders should worry about the trust deficit in their societies. It is obvious that the bond between significant parts of electorates and leaders in Europe is broken. When senior government leaders argue in favour of official positions, they risk being labelled undemocratic and condescending vis-à-vis the citizen on the street. Much worse, people seem to have stopped believing that their leaders tell the truth: no matter how many times Dutch leaders confirmed that the association agreement would not give Ukraine a path to EU membership, anti-association voters did not believe them. This might not yet imply a continental crisis of representative democracy, but it is a weakness waiting to be exploited.

Populist movements across the Union stand ready to take advantage. Empowered by modern communication tools, several hundreds of thousands of signatures to trigger a referendum – in the Dutch case 300,000 were needed – can be gathered from the comfort of one’s living room. Decisions are made by those who show up. In the Netherlands on this occasion, 70% did not bother. Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch right-wing Freedom Party, delighted with the referendum and the result, suggested we might have witnessed ‘the beginning of the end of the EU’. Similar triumphalism is likely in Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin will welcome the opportunity to further exploit yet another rift among EU member states in his quest to undermine the liberal international order the EU represents.

In Kiev, where many hopes linked to the 2013 and 2014 protests and change of government continue to be disappointed in the face of persistent corruption and Russian sponsored separatism, it will be hard to interpret the Dutch referendum as anything but a slap in the face and a refusal to let Ukrainians share in the liberal and prosperous vision of closer association with Western Europe. It might also be seen as rewarding Russian aggression and disregard for international law, from a country which saw more than 190 of its citizens perish when MH17 was brought down over Eastern Ukraine.

Finally, there will be consequences for the EU itself. Already badly shaken by multiple crises and in limbo until the British referendum on membership in June, it received a further blow to its foreign policy agenda. A week after the British referendum, the EU is due to present its new ‘Global Strategy’ for foreign and security policy. Its ability to act upon it is declining even before the paper is out. 

Bastian Giegerich is Director of Defence and Military Analysis at IISS. He is co-author of the Survival article The Munich Consensus and the Purpose of German Power.

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