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What the UK can learn from the Dutch referendum

April 9, 2016 12:59 PM
By Henk van Klaveren in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

European flagsWith 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 and a former Liberal Democrat press officer.

Comment - John Marriott - Lincoln, Sleaford and North Hykeham

What it shows is that it's not only the Brits who don't like the direction in which the EU is moving. Please form an orderly queue (that might not be easy for many Europeans).