What lessons can be learned from the Ukraine referendum?

After the Dutch people's rejection of the EU's Association Agreement EU politicians have voiced criticism of the referendum as a political instrument. Commentators call on Europe's politicians to launch a debate on the structure of the Union and lead a resolute campaign for a strong and united EU.

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Le Monde (FR) /

National parliaments need more power

Popular distrust of the EU has once more reared its ugly head with the Dutch referendum, the centre-left daily Le Monde comments:

“Every major decision taken by the democratically elected governments in the 28 EU states is first voted on by the European Parliament, before being put to national legislators. That is the essence of representative democracy. Only now, Europeans see the EU as a distant mechanism that has little to do with democracy. Which explains the attitude of rejection in every popular vote on a European issue. And the menace of a referendum has now become a permanent instrument of blackmail for Europhobic parties. It is crucial to bear this in mind, otherwise the Union will become ungovernable. One taboo topic must finally be dealt with: the EU institutions - and a reform that involves the national parliaments directly in the major decisions regarding Europe.”

Lietuvos žinios (LT) /

Learn from the populists

EU proponents should learn from the reaction of the 'no' camp to the result of the Dutch referendum when it comes to how to better present their ideas, the Lithuanian MEP Petras Auštrevičius demands in the daily paper Lietuvos žinios:

“Europe's populists and radicals seized the opportunity and expressed their delight on the social networks. Meanwhile the EU proponents were, as always, more reserved in their reaction. The president of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker was sad - a strange emotion for a politician who is responsible for EU policy. This is not the time to mourn but to analyse the results and put together a convincing campaign for a strong and united EU as quickly as possible. … We must join ranks against those in Europe who are backing the Kremlin's interests and spreading chaos. And this is all the more urgent because the referendum in the UK is just around the corner.”

Aamulehti (FI) /

Referendums are not a toy

The Dutch are playing dangerously with direct democracy, the liberal daily Aamulehti grumbles:

“The perverse referendum in the Netherlands will certainly help the anti-EU camp with their only slightly less perverse 'Brexit' referendum, which is due to be held mid-summer in Britain. Referendums are a good tool when it comes to settling important and central questions and they belong to a functioning democracy. But there must be a limit somewhere, especially these days when people like playing with the toy they invented, the Internet, like the girl who found a box of matches in a fireworks factory. ”

De Standaard (BE) /

Nothing to do with democracy

In view of the low voter turnout of around 32 percent, journalist Walter Zinzen questions the relevance of the referendum as a democratic instrument:

“If the Ukraine referendum demonstrated one thing, it's that a referendum is the opposite of what it purports to be - namely democratic. ... No one can say that 60 percent (those who voted No) of 32 percent represents a democratic majority. If almost 70 percent of voters don't go to the polls, they are the ones who represent the majority. ... With such a low voter turnout, a small group is forcing its opinions on the majority. Who can call something like that democratic? ... How are normal people with normal lives supposed to decide such complex topics? They don't have the time to get a full grasp of the situation. That's what they pay their elected representatives to do. They, in turn, can take competent decisions.”

El País (ES) /

Populists exploit referendums

In the Dutch referendum the citizens vented their general frustration with the EU rather than dealing with the issue of the Association Agreement with Ukraine, writes the centre-left daily El País:

“As discredited as representative democracy has become direct democracy is certainly no panacea. On the contrary, as we can see all over Europe - from Greece to the UK and from Hungary to the Netherlands - referendums are threatening to become the populist instrument of choice for calling democracy into question, driving the European project into crisis and in that case playing right into Vladimir Putin's hands. … Once again, as has been the case in the majority of referendums held on European issues in the last two decades, the electorate hasn't answered the question it was asked but the one it would like to have been asked.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Rutte government trapped in vicious circle

The fact that a clear majority of the Dutch are against the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine puts The Hague and the EU under pressure, the centre-left daily De Volkskrant observes:

“The Dutch voters fuelled the doubts about the future of the European project on Wednesday. The Rutte government faces the major challenge of turning the result into something tangible, something that won't increase the people's anger. … But disappointment is inevitable. … There is the danger that a vicious circle of Euroscepticism will develop. No matter what the cabinet does the 'no' camp will see any concessions by Europe as purely cosmetic measures, and as confirmation of the idea that the Netherlands has little say in reality. Confirmation that the people have reason to be angry. The referendum has given that anger a voice, but failed to serve as a vent for it.”

Il Sole 24 Ore (IT) /

EU is the big loser

The Dutch have slapped the EU in the face with the British referendum just around the corner, the liberal business daily Il Sole 24 Ore groans:

“The Hague may now demand that certain clauses of the agreement be reviewed, particularly those of political character. However, the general direction of the agreement, which has already been negotiated and ratified, can hardly be changed now. The EU, which is already in a painful state of uncertainty about the result of the Brexit referendum on June 23, is the big loser here. Full of anxiety it is watching a precedent being established in the area of international agreements that could call into question the entire decision-making process of the EU.”

Postimees (EE) /

Dutch playing right into Moscow's hands

With their No in the referendum the Dutch have put Europe's unity at risk, the liberal-conservative daily Postimees fumes:

“The opponents of the Association Agreement say Ukraine is a corrupt state and that they don't want another Greece in Europe. They don't care that except for the Ukrainians themselves, no one is talking about them joining the EU. It's not hard to guess which capital city is particularly pleased with the result. Until now the EU has managed to speak with one voice on the matter of Ukraine and the sanctions, even if there was criticism every now and then. Now the Dutch have jeopardised that unity. It is an irony of history that the sanctions against Russia were imposed straight after the shooting down of the Malaysian Airline passenger plane in Eastern Ukraine. Most of the victims of that tragedy were Dutch.”

Gazeta Wyborcza (PL) /

Dutch can block the rest of the EU

A Dutch rejection of the Association Agreement with Ukraine would be disastrous, the liberal member of the Polish parliament Marcin Święcicki writes in a commentary for the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza:

“That would mean that a simple majority in one referendum in a single country is enough to block a decision that all the other 27 states, the European Parliament and even Ukraine have gone along with. The right to a veto on key issues leads to a situation in which the EU can't take any decisions at all. This confirms the theory that the EU either falls apart or it must construct a federal system in which decisions affecting democratically elected institutions are taken with a simple majority.”

Lost in EUrope (DE) /

Trendsetter for Brexit

The referendum in the Netherlands is a test run for the Brexit vote in the UK, writes Eric Bonse in his Lost in Europe blog:

“It doesn't make sense to write off the referendums in these two countries as 'arbitrary', 'unnecessary' or 'beside the point', as the mainstream media are doing. That doesn't go far enough. We would be better off taking the people's complaints about this Europe and its (increasingly German) leadership seriously. It is a profoundly democratic complaint, even if it comes across as populist. If the Dutch say 'no' they could set the trend for the British - and the Brexit. That already happened in 2005 - back then they caused the constitution to fail.”

La Stampa (IT) /

Referendum against the EU

The liberal daily La Stampa fears the vote could trigger a dangerous domino effect:

“The website Geenstijl, which translated means 'no style', started the initiative for the referendum. Its goal was to challenge the 'democratic deficit in the EU', which it accuses of not listening to the people. 300,000 signatures would have sufficed but the petition gathered 428,000 signatures. In this way the initiators have put the already wobbly social-liberal coalition government in a tight spot and created the conditions for the perfect global storm. A victory for the no camp - supported by the [Socialist] opposition and the right-wing populist party - would be interpreted as a clear rejection of the EU. A rejection that would play right into the hands of Eurosceptics everywhere, starting with the British, who are set to vote in June. It could trigger a devastating domino effect.”

The Guardian (GB) /

This kind of referundum is an abuse of democracy

This referendum is not about the EU's relationship with Ukraine but about teaching Brussels a lesson, the centre-left daily The Guardian writes:

“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. ... 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.”

More opinions

Irish Examiner (IE) / 08 April 2016
  Don't leave the field to the Eurosceptics