May 1968 is probably one of the defining moments in modern history. Intellectuals and university students throughout Europe and the US took to the streets protesting everything from the War in Vietnam to the way elites were ruling the increasingly better-educated masses. Within a few years, a bottom-up, grass roots politics took hold that would forever change how governments and leaders are elected, how they govern, and how they define policy.
The aftermath of 1968 also saw an increased use of referenda as instruments by governments and citizens to consult wider populations. Using referenda to decide on very complex issues often reduces multi-faceted issues into momentary popular single topics. The student leaders of 1968 could probably not have imagined how their democratic ideas would be high-jacked by a combination of extremists and opponents of democracy exploiting technological progress and social media. Nobody understands the dangers of technology and social media better than dictators and demagogues.
Enter Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, the masters of demagoguery, propaganda and disinformation. They are the anti-thesis of democracy. Democracy, freedom of expression and individual rights scare the living daylight out of his autocratic media controlled regime. The EU is Putin's worst nightmare in progress. The Kremlin boys thrive on weakening the EU.
The 2016 referendums in the EU, then, must be one of Putin's wildest dreams come true, particularly the Dutch referendum about cooperation and partnership between the EU and Ukraine, which was ratified by all 28 EU governments. First, the Kremlin used pressure to sabotage the EU's Eastern partnership. Armenia caved in first. Then, Putin's Russia sabotaged the democratic movement in Ukraine, followed by the deployment of green men on the streets of Crimea. He grabbed the entire Crimean landmass after a mock referendum and then invaded Eastern Ukraine. Moscow succeeded in delaying the trade and cooperation agreement between Ukraine and the EU for a year.
Suddenly, when all appeared lost for Putin's sabotage of Ukraine's desire to form closer ties with the EU, unexpected help arrived from a bunch of demagogue hooligans in the Netherlands. These misfits used social media and the internet to force an already weak Dutch coalition government to hold a referendum on a complex agreement (more than 1000 pages) between the EU and Ukraine. According to journalist Ann Applebaum, one of the referendum’s initiators told a Ukrainian journalist that ''he certainly hadn’t read it and wasn’t going to — but 'don’t take it personally.'”
It was clearly going to be a referendum initiated as a sick farce by a website operator specialising in spreading spoofs, hoaxes and other practical jokes. They gathered enough signatures online and decided to put them to bad use for all the wrong reasons.
The Netherlands has 17 different political parties sitting in the Dutch parliament with a further 10 different parties represented in local and regional government, including two different types of communist party. It is a fractured society. The government has a parliamentary majority of only one seat. Dutch citizens clearly love a little debate about any issue at any hour of the day at work, in the local pub, and multiple discussions every day on TV.
In the debate about Ukraine, the NO side got most of the attention. The Dutch extreme right and extreme left had finally found an issue they could kick at from several sides. They liked the idea of putting a risk-free boot into the EU. Hearing them repeat and spout lines right out of RT and Sputnik's vocabulary and using photos from Russian propaganda sites about Ukraine made the hair of an outsider stand up. Clearly, Russian propaganda has infiltrated mainstream thinking in the EU. It is no longer a surprise to see the Kremlin using extremists to influence trouble in the EU.
In an opinion piece in Saturday's Washington Post, Applebaum quoted a poll that apparently had been conducted by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on how the Dutch 'No' voters saw the issue at hand. 59% of those who voted against the treaty listed the fact that Ukraine is corrupt, 19% believed that Ukraine was responsible for the crash of MH-17 (the plane with mainly Dutch citizens that Russian separatists shot down over Ukraine in 2014), and 34% believed that the treaty would guarantee Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. The first issue is well known, but the treaty was designed to reduce corruption in Ukraine. The two other points are completely false. Applebaum wrote that the Dutch far-right used corrupt methods to fight a 'corrupt Ukraine', obtaining electoral money under false pretences. Dutch voters were also warned that adopting the EU agreement was a provocation for Putin. The last line is a favourite among extremists.
The far-right party of Geert Wilders has increasingly started to attack Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, accusing them of being cheap labour. Ukraine fits that mould. Wilders warned that Ukrainians without visas were going to take the jobs of Dutch people. According to recent polls in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' far-right now has the largest percentage of support in a traditionally fractured Dutch political landscape. Almost stranger than fiction, the far-left took Palestinian flags to the NO rallies. The traditionally tolerant Dutch appear increasingly less and less tolerant.
The Yes side got little attention. Many voters did not show up for the referendum as they refused to vote for an issue forced to a national debate by a bunch of troublemakers. The fragile majority Dutch government voted yes, but kept a low profile. Afraid to rub both the extreme right and left the wrong way, they did not want to be seen correcting the nonsense of the NO campaign for risk of further escalating the debate the wrong way.
To add injury to insult, the Dutch government by law has to subsidise the various participating groups. One group printed Ukrainian national symbols on toilet paper... Even the Animal Party (they have 2 members sitting in the Dutch parliament defending animals) entered the debate and they too got money supporting the extreme left in suggesting a NO vote.
When confronting one of the organisers, prominent Dutch lawyer Gerard Spong called the latest Dutch referendum criminal in nature. It was clear that the yobbos created a referendum under false pretext and that is rightfully a criminal offense in the Netherlands.
The NO vote won with a 2/3 majority with a turnout of just 32 percent of the electorate. That was just over the required minimum of 30 percent. It must have been a good moment for Putin during a week when he was ridiculed elsewhere for his Panamanian off-shore connections. Russian TV had even dispatched a crew to the Netherlands.
There are important lessons to be learned by policy makers in the EU and those defending freedom of expression. Referendums should be used sparingly. Either the government calls a referendum or at least 10% of the population should sign a petition before one can be held. The Dutch troublemakers got just 1.9% (300,000 people) signed up. If the organisers are unable to mobilise 50% of the population to participate and get at least 50% of the vote it should not require any further debate. No government money should be wasted on financing for the organisers. A better alternative is the White House's policy in the USA. A petition signed by 100,000 people requires the White House to respond, but not a referendum.
The Dutch government should make it clear to the general population that this expensive waste is an abuse of democracy, turn the tables on the misfits, and move on. The larger electorate may reward them for their bold action. The Dutch should amend their referendum sooner rather than later if they want to avoid this type of nonsense. Former EU Commissioner Karel De Gucht also suggested that the Dutch put the whole referendum quickly behind them.
Time has come for the EU to fight back more effectively against those undermining the institution. They also should take a far more aggressive stand against the Kremlin's hybrid war, particularly against propaganda channels such as RT and Sputnik.
As stated often before, more EU and national politicians need to take time and talk about the EU with their populations. The EU may be poorly understood by most, but few can argue against it being the guarantor of levels of prosperity and freedom on a scale Europe has not seen in ages. The EU and a strong Atlantic partnership have ensured that, within a century, all but the poorest in the EU have achieved a standard of living similar to that of a tiny elite just a century ago. Former EU Commissioner Karel De Gucht summed it up well on Friday: 'Nobody has come up with a valuable alternative to the EU'.