Don’t shoot the piano player

The Hague, April 5, 2016: Dutch MP Harry van Bommel campaigns for the “no” vote ahead of the Netherlands’ referendum on the EU’s association treaty with Ukraine (source: dpa)
The Hague, April 5, 2016: Dutch MP Harry van Bommel campaigns for the “no” vote ahead of the Netherlands’ referendum on the EU’s association treaty with Ukraine (source: dpa)

“Don’t shoot the piano player, he’s doing the best he can.” In the Wild West, where saloons often featured punch-ups and shoot-outs, this was a frequent appeal. It was important to keep the piano player out of fights because the establishment and its customers needed him to keep playing, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

On April 6, the Netherlands held a referendum on the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement, which the government had already agreed to ratify. With voter turnout just above the 30 percent threshold required to make the referendum valid, the agreement was rejected by more than 60 percent of those casting ballots.

According to Dutch rules, the referendum is not binding, but the government is required to either reject or confirm the decision. Such a clear-cut verdict at the polls will not be easy to dismiss, but discussions between the Dutch government and European institutions will certainly find a way to save the agreement.

The superficial interpretation of the results was that they showed voters had become fed up with the EU and afraid of foreigners. Anti-EU movements such as the United Kingdom’s UKIP and France’s Front National made no secret of their satisfaction.

Other Euroskeptics – including those in the European and American media –reacted smugly as well. They were happy to say “I told you so,” even as they feigned concern. In fact, this mainstream schadenfreude over Europe’s supposed disintegration is more dangerous than anything said by the anti-EU movements themselves.

What is often overlooked is the dissatisfaction in many member states with their own national political systems. Most of these systems, tracing their histories back to the early 19th century, have allowed democracy to be “hijacked” by party oligarchies. The democratic process has been reduced to holding an election every four years or so.

Democracies, which by their nature are decentralized, have been increasingly supplanted by centralized, standardized bureaucracies. This undermines the work of good government. As Archduke Otto von Habsburg once quipped: “God bless the civil servants, but God save us from the bureaucrats.”

The dearth of democracy created by this process within national states is writ large in the European Union itself.

In my view, this hollowing-out of the political system is behind the Dutch referendum’s results. The low turnout shows that the anti-EU forces mobilized their followers, while the government was unable to rally EU supporters – still the vast majority of the population.

That nearly 70 percent of the Dutch electorate did not bother to vote shows a lack of trust in their own government. But it is easier to blame an abstract bogeyman in Brussels than to look closer to home.

While the Dutch referendum is unlikely to derail the EU association agreement with Ukraine, it will still have unfortunate consequences. It casts doubt and imposes delay on what was already a difficult convergence to pull off. The psychological effect in Ukraine will be bad, especially with Ukrainians already feeling abandoned by their fellow Europeans. All this is great for the Kremlin.

If the referendum in the Netherlands was a bar fight, two piano players got shot – the people of Ukraine and the EU. In the short term, the winners are the Euroskeptics, the triumphant anti-EU groups and the self-satisfied hypocrites who constantly criticize the EU.

However, we have good reason to hope that the European idea will ultimately prevail, in spite of national party politics. The silver lining of the Dutch referendum was that it showed voters are dissatisfied with this broken, selfish system.

Europe has been challenged many times over the past 2,000 years and has managed to prevail. The EU needs reform, but reform in its member states is even more important. Political earthquakes like the Dutch referendum are often necessary to trigger overdue changes. More are needed.

Ukraine will eventually solve its problems, despite the skeptics. Meanwhile, it is learning the hard way that foreign support can only go so far.

In the end, both Europe and Ukraine will keep playing the piano. And in Kiev, it will be a pro-European tune.

Related statements:
Ukraine left on its own
Neglected Ukraine crisis threatens Europe more than Greek bankruptcy
Europe lets down Ukraine

Related reports:
IMF puts itself in a fix as it bends rules to bail out Ukraine
Global trends: Ukraine fatigue may force bargain with Russia

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