On July 1st, 2015, the Consultative Referendum Law (Dutch: Wet Raadgevend Referendum) will enter into force in the Netherlands. It gives 300,000 citizens the right to trigger a national, non-binding referendum on most laws and treaties  that have been passed by parliament.

By Arjen Nijeboer (Meer Democratie)

Main features

  • It is a national facultative (‘corrective’) referendum: citizens can initiate referendums on laws and treaties after these have been passed by both chambers of parliament. The law does not provide for popular initiatives (votes on proposals written by citizens) nor for referendums on the provincial or municipal level. Provinces and municipalities are free to introduce any type of citizen-initiated consultative referendums through local charters, and a minority has already done so.

  • Excluded topics are the constitution, the monarchy and the government budget as well as laws/treaties that also apply to the Dutch Carribean islands (as they have no referendum procedure) and laws that purely serve to implement decisions by international organizations including secondary EU legislation (as national legislators have no freedom there). But referendums on taxes, EU treaties, social security, economic policies, immigration, reorganization of municipal borders, traffic laws, etc. are allowed.

  • In the first phase of 4 weeks, 10.000 signatures are required. If they are approved, then 300.000 signatures must be gathered in 6 weeks.

  • Signatures can be gathered freely on the streets. Individual citizens can download a signature form from a government website, sign it and send it by postal mail back to the authorities.

  • There is de facto online signature gathering. Officially, signatures still have to be handed in on paper. But the initiators of the first referendum (the vote on April 6, 2016 on the EU-Ukraine association treaty, see below) have found a workaround: they created an online app where people can sign the official form online and "draw" their signature with their computer mouse or their finger on a mobile screen. The initiators then printed out the official forms on paper and handed them in with the government. The government responded soon, acknowledging that such an electronic signature is legally the same as a "wet" signature, so that these online gathered signatures would be valid. This will be the case with all future referendums. However, Meer Democratie is still in favour of an official government system for e-collection of signatures. The Consultative Referendum Laws opens the possibility for this, but says that the government first has to agree on an executive measure in which this process is fixed. The government has until now not taken any action for  this. The Netherlands do have a system for electronic identification in place (DigiD) through which citizens can pay taxes, request social security, etcetera. Most adults Dutch have  this set up so it should be possible for the government to realise an official e-signature gahtering system.

  • An independent Referendum Commission will set the date of the vote (between 3 and 6 months thereafter), ensure that official information is provided to voters, set the precise question (for or against the law or treaty) and hand out up to 2 million euros of government subsidies to the yes- and no-campaigns. The Referendum Commission decides on its own regulation.

  • At the last moment, a turnout quorum of 30% was introduced at the request of the Social Democrats. Formally the vote is nonbinding (see above), but there is general agreement that Dutch politicians should not ignore referendum outcomes, at least if the turnout quorum has been reached.

  • The government can declare a law to be urgent, and then it will enter into force right after parliament has approved them, but a referendum can still be held on them.

  • Citizens can challenge decisions to (not) hold a referendum before the administrative courts.

The full Dutch text of the Consultative Referendum Law can be read here.

History of the law proposal

The Consultative Referendum Law was initiated in 2005 – soon after the “referendum from above” (plebiscite) on the European Constitution – by three MP’s from the Social Democrats (PvdA), Progressive Liberals (D66) and the Greens (GroenLinks), among them Niesco Dubbelboer (co-founder of the Referendum Platform and Meer Democratie).

The law was lying dormant in the parliament for years, also because there was no majority for it at first, and was revived again in the beginning of 2013. On February 14th, 2013, it was approved by the main chamber of parliament (Second Chamber) and on April 15th, 2014 also by the Senate (First Chamber). Besides the three parties mentioned, the SP (Socialists), PVV (Rightwing Populists), Partij van de Dieren (Animal Welfare Party) and 50PLUS (Party of the Elderly) voted in favour. The VVD (Rightwing Liberals), CDA, ChristenUnie and SGP (all Christian Democrats) voted against.

The same parties that support the Consultative Referendum Law also support a Constitutional change introducing a binding version of the same referendum law. This has been introduced simultaneously. However, after the next elections the Constitutional change would need a two-third majority in both chambers of parliament and this will probably not be there. The introduction of the binding rejective referendum failed in 1999 during the final vote with only one vote short. That’s why the advocates this time also introduced a non-binding version through a regular law that only needs a regular majority.

Our view of the law

The Consultative Referendum Law is far from perfect, but compared to the previous "temporary" consultative referendum law (that due to power struggles in the parliament existed only for 3 years), there are considerable improvements:

  • The signature threshold has been halved, from 600,000 to 300,000.

  • It is now explicity stated that signatures can be freely gathered on the streets, plus de facto online signature gathering through private websites is possible (see above).

  • The possibility for an official government system for electronic signature gathering is now opened (even when this still has to be agreed by the government).

  • The turnout quorum has been almost halved: in the previous "temporary" referendum law the majority should at the same time encompass 30% of all those eligible to vote (approval quorum). I.e. if 60% votes "no", you need a 50% turnout to get 30% of the entire electorate (including those who stayed at home). The current law will get a regular turnout quorum of 30%.

  • The independent Referendum Commission has been introduced, as well as subsidies for the yes- and no-campaigns.

  • This law is permanent - it will only dissappear if and when the Constitutional change is adopted, but it is unsure if this will happen in the foreseeable future.

Of course, referendums should always be binding, but we hope use of non-binding referendums will get everyone used to the instrument, will increase appetite for more and thus pave the way for binding direct democracy.

First use of the referendum law​

On April 6th, 2016, the first referendum on the basis of the Consultative Referendum Law was held, asking citizens whether there were for or against the ratification of the EU-Ukraine association treaty  that had been negotiated during the years prior to that. Read an English-language analysis of that referendum here.