Dutch ‘no’ vote is a wake up call for the UK referendum

The vote against the EU's association agreement with Ukraine emphasises the need for a full-throated Remain campaign


When the UKIP leader took his smirking face and fag packet politics to join the Dutch campaign in a referendum against Europe’s association agreement with Ukraine, he was happy to endorse a process initiated by an extreme right-wing website ‘No Style’ and to campaign alongside the far right so-called ‘Freedom Party’.

Not to mention the irony of Nigel Farage last month demanding that US President Barack Obama stays out of the EU Referendum debate, but this month giving himself a free pass to meddle in Dutch politics.

It is no coincidence that one of the first to welcome yesterday’s ‘no’ result was Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, exposing Farage’s hypocrisy in seeking to claim the mantle of democracy whilst simultaneously engaged in a dangerous flirtation with anti-democratic Russia.

Medvedev’s master, Vladimir Putin, would be one of the first to welcome a vote that saw Britain quit the European Union on June 23.

Forgive me if my first sympathies should be for the protesters of Maidan Square, Kiev, with some of whom I stood, and with others who were prepared to lose their lives for the sake of democracy.

Ukraine was invaded by Russia and saw some of its territory annexed. The shame of yesterday’s result is that it is European support for the country’s independent democratic development which is now castin to doubt.

But British Eurosceptics spotted their chance for a publicity coup in advance of our own referendum. Now it is important for Britain’s ‘Remain’ camp to spot our own opening in response and an opportunity to learn.

The differences are clear: in the Netherlands there was a minimum threshold of 30 per cent for validity, and many pro-EU voters gambled by abstaining, only to see the turnout inch up to 32 per cent.

Another contributing factor came in the way that the Government coalition parties refrained from full-throated campaigning, despite all adopting ‘yes’ positions. With their own General Election a year away and bad opinion poll ratings from the outset, too many chose to sit this one out. The lesson of course is that Labour, and other parties, cannot afford to do the same here.

Also, it is clear that there was widespread confusion, even incomprehension, about the real substance of the question. Even the lead ‘no’ campaigner admitted that the campaign became a proxy for other questions about Europe.

In Britain, we have to win the communications battle against our opponents over which are the real issues on the ballot paper.

However, it is sad but true that the real message of the result was that the Dutch public is against future EU enlargement — even if this was never part of the association agreement. British Eurosceptics have launched their own ‘project fear’ about Turkey, in the same vein.

Yet the truth is that any aspirations for EU membership whether from Kiev or Ankara are many years away and would require dramatic changes, of a type which in reality we should welcome if they ever happened.

However the British referendum isn’t about EU membership for countries several time zones away and many years ahead, but about our country and our future, right now.

And one of the absolutely key lessons from the Netherlands is a warning cry to British voters that, if they don’t turn out in June, the extremists can win. If you basically believe Britain is better off remaining in the European Union for all its imperfections — and we are — you have to vote for it.

If fair-minded people across the mainstream of the political spectrum really don’t want to hand victory to the political fringes, we have to persuade them to take part.

It is an absurd notion that you can advance democracy in your own country by suppressing it in another, but that is the argument which appeared to succeed in the Netherlands.

In Britain’s EU referendum, we must confront such Eurosceptic claims, by boldly arguing that our own democracy is enhanced by allying with democratic partners in Europe, and diminished if we are cut-off from them.

And instead of last night’s Dutch referendum being a rehearsal for Brexit, we are waking up from a disturbing nightmare which will itself be a wake-up call to the British electorate to vote to remain in the European Union.

Richard Howitt MEP is Labour Foreign Affairs Spokesperson in the European Parliament and MEP for the East of England. He was present in the Dutch Parliament in The Hague to observe the referendum as part of the eighth interparliamentary conference on EU foreign policy.

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