By Mathijs Van Dijk
The last time a referendum was held in The Netherlands was ten years ago. Back then, 61% of participants said “no” to a European Constitution. On 1 July of this year, a new referendum law entered into force. The law allows citizens in The Netherlands the possibility to force a referendum (which itself then only has advisory power) on laws and international treaties that have already entered into foce. This event passed with almost zero attention in the Dutch traditional media. However, the pink coloured weblog Geenstijl saw here an opportunity to mobilize Dutch internet users behind a call for referendum on the desirability of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. At the time of writing, the number of signatures gathered via their platform Geenpeil is very close to the required amount of 300.000 needed to force the government to organize a referendum.
All in all, this is an interesting moment to have a look at Geenstijl through the lens of Geenpeil. With Geenpeil, the online sarcasm and dissatisfaction with current Dutch society starts to find an arguably far more constructive outlet, handing out flyers on the streets of Dutch cities to build support for a referendum. Founded in 2003, Geenstijl is a large, professionally operated blog that was soon bought up by a news media group that is right-of-center. It provides an online community and forum space for people – mostly young and middle aged higher educated men – for news and scoops that embarrass the establishment (such as corruption scandals and conflicts of interest) and for critiques of multicultural society in The Netherlands.
Importantly, the weblog also serves as a conduit for discontent with Brussels and the feeling of politics as being out of touch with the common man. This is what the drive for a referendum hooks into. Together with The Citizens Committee EU (het Burgercomité EU) and The Forum for Democracy (het Forum voor Democratie), organizations skeptical of (expanding) politics at the EU level, Geenstijl saw an opportunity for action. They were quick to combine the new referendum law and the association agreement passing parliament without so much as a ripple in the media with their own strong intuitions about the sentiment among the Dutch public regarding the EU.
It has certainly proved instrumental that the community using Geenstijl is among the most tech savvy in the country. The law states that the 300.000 signatures required for requesting a referendum need to be signed and delivered on paper to the appropriate government official’s desk. Geenpeil has found a way around that by allowing you to sign digitally. All printing is then done by the organizers of Geenpeil. Promotion tools have included pretty young women and traditional canvassing at the Sunday market. Others have been more akin to the US political style, using billboards and mocking figures of the political establishment (Alexander Pechtold of D66 in particular) to snazzy endorsement videos with public figures.
With the slogan ‘Save Democracy!’ (Red de Democratie!), Geenpeil would seem to be going for an ultimately benignly disruptive effect within the Dutch political landscape by empowering people to make their voice heard on a topic, the EU, that is today highly contentious. On the other hand, Geenpeil has centrally on its front page a picture of an angry Putin, saying then we have no business pissing of the Russians. Having delved into a number of texts and tv performances by Geenpeilpeople, it is still unclear to me what the overall objective is of this whole initiative. Is it trying to give a voice to the demos or is it really just pushing for less Europe in whatever way possible? In a sense, this confusion must be beneficial to Geenpeil for creating a maximum of interest. Let me then finish by stating clearly that I hope the referendum comes to fruition and that this final form of the process is used in parliamentary politics to save it from silence (omerta) on EU fundamentals instead of as an internet mouthpiece for the call to save The Netherlands from the claws of Europe.
About the Author
Mathijs van Dijk lives as a Dutchman in Brussels where he currently writes and teaches Dutch. From this Belgian home with his Italian girlfriend and two cats, he keeps tabs on Dutch goings-on and continues to learn every day about Italy.