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First citizen-initiated referendum in the Netherlands

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First citizen-initiated referendum in the Netherlands


On 6 April 2016, the Netherlands’ 12 million eligible citizens will decide in a national referendum on whether to correct the Dutch Parliament’s decision to approve the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Following its entry into force on 1 July 2015, this form of citizen-initiated “facultative referendum” will be applied in Dutch history for the first time.

Democracy activists around the initiative “Meer Democratie” (then “Referendum Platform”) had drafted the referendum law back in 2005 and campaigned for its introduction. Tomorrow’s vote is the first citizen-initiated referendum in Dutch history, and the second referendum in the Netherlands since 1815.  

“It feels like a dream coming true to see that our arduous work for a citizen-initiated referendum has paid out and now is actually happening,” states Arjen Nijeboer, spokesperson of “Meer Democratie” and a board member of Democracy International. “The nature of the referendum is non-binding yet it will unfold enough political pressure to change the Dutch Parliament’s decision in case of a No-vote. That’s real power by the people.”

According to the Dutch Advisory Referendum Act of 2015, citizens have to gather 10,000 signatures in four weeks followed by 300,000 signatures in six weeks to trigger a facultative referendum on laws and treaties that both chambers of parliament have passed. Excluded from a referendum are topics on the constitution, the monarchy and the government budget. Concerning the referendum to be held tomorrow, the foundation “Burgercomité EU” and the online blog “Geen Stijl” had collected the necessary signatures to call for a referendum on the approval of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. For the referendum to be valid, a turnout quorum of 30% is required.

“For us democracy activists, tomorrow’s referendum is a real break through. On 1 July 2015 the referendum came into effect, and just nine days later the “Burgercomité EU” and “Geen Stijl” started gathering signatures. This shows how hungry the Dutch population is to have a say on EU issues. Moreover, there was a broad public debate ahead of the referendum, so we do notice these positive side effects of direct democracy we always wanted to see in reality”, Arjen Nijeboer adds.

History of the facultative referendum

Three Members of Parliament of the Social Democrats (PvdA), Progressive Liberals (D66) and the Greens (GroenLinks), among them Niesco Dubbelboer (co-founder of the Referendum Platform and Meer Democratie) had initiated the Consultative Referendum Law in 2005 – soon after the “referendum from above” (plebiscite) on the European Constitution. The law then lied dormant in the parliament for several years, also as it did not find a majority. It was revived at the beginning of 2013. On 14 February 2013 it was approved by the main chamber of parliament (second chamber) and on 15 April 2014 also by the Senate (first chamber). Meer Democratie, a member of Democracy International, criticises that the facultative referendum is non-binding, yet considers the instrument as the first step to pave the way for binding direct democracy once Dutch citizens got used to it.

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(eingetragener Verein e.V.).

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