Referendums in the Netherlands

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In the Netherlands, since the entry into force of the Advisory Referendum Act[1] (Wet raadgevend referendum) on 1 July 2015, most types of primary laws can be subjected to a suspensory, non-binding referendum if requested shortly after royal assent and subsequent proclamation. If a law is rejected by more than half of the votes cast, with a mandatory turnout of at least 30%, its entry into force will be suspended indefinitely and a follow-up law must be enacted that either repeals the law or provides for its entry into force.

The Dutch Constitution has no provisions on referendums, which means that any referendum held at a national or local level cannot be binding as long as the Constitution gives primacy to legislatures. The first reading of a constitutional amendment to introduce a binding, abrogative referendum at national, provincial, municipal and water-board level was completed on 15 October 2014. The second reading cannot not take place until after the next general election and will require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the States General. A previous attempt failed in May 1999 when the bill was rejected in second reading in the Senate due to VVD Senator Hans Wiegel rebelling against his own party.

Since the constitutional referendum of the Batavian Republic in 1805, only two referendums have been held. The first was the consultative, ad hoc referendum on the European Constitution in 2005. The second was the referendum on the ratification of the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement on 6 April 2016, which was the first referendum under the Advisory Referendum Act.

In the Netherlands, bills are generally submitted by the Government, but also individual members of the House of Representatives have the right to introduce bills. In 2005, Members of Parliament Niesco Dubbelboer (Labour), Wijnand Duyvendak (GreenLeft) and Boris van der Ham (Democrats 66) introduced the bill that would become the Advisory Referendum Act. Its accompanying explanatory memorandum started with a quote of former US president Theodore Roosevelt: "I believe in the [...] referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative."[2] The bill's initial sponsors were succeeded by Paul Kalma (Labour),[3] Femke Halsema (GreenLeft), Pierre Heijnen (Labour), Jolande Sap (GreenLeft),[4] Linda Voortman (GreenLeft),[5] Gerard Schouw (Democrats 66) and Manon Fokke (Labour)[6] before it was adopted by both chambers.

The bill passed the House of Representatives on 14 February 2013 with 98 votes in favour and 52 against. All parties except the coalition party People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and the three Christian parties – Christian Democratic Appeal, ChristianUnion and the Reformed Political Party – voted in favour.[7] In the Senate, the opposing votes came from the same four parties and the bill passed with 45 votes in favour and 30 against.[8] It was signed into law on 30 September 2014 and entered into force on 1 July 2015.


A referendum can be requested for any piece of primary legislation, including treaty ratifications, after it was signed into law and published in the Staatscourant, but generally before it enters into force (subject to exceptions). The law excludes several subjects, such as laws concerning: the monarchy or royal family, the national budget, constitutional amendments, legislation passed solely for the execution of treaties or decisions of intergovernmental organisations, Kingdom acts (unless they will solely apply to the Netherlands) and legislation passed in response to a previous referendum.[9]

The request procedure of a referendum consists of two stages. For the preliminary request, 10,000 requests have to be received within four weeks after proclamation of the law. Upon completion of this stage, the provisions concerning entry into force of the law in question are suspended until the procedure has come to an end. For the definitive request, 300,000 requests have to be received within six weeks after the completion of the preliminary request. If this is not successful, the 30% turnout has not been met or the law is approved, then the law can enter into effect by royal decree. If the law is rejected, then the suspension is indefinite and a follow-up law must be enacted that either repeals the law or overrides the suspended provisions to let the law enter into force after all.

A referendum commission is appointed by the government every four years. The commission decides the referendum date and question, subsidies for campaigns ("for" as well as "against") and gives neutral information on the referendum question. On 1 October 2015 the first referendum commission was installed. It is chaired by Medy van der Laan, and further consists of A.B. Blomberg, Willemien Den Ouden, Ruud Koole and Reint Jan Renes.[10]

Criticism of the turnout requirement

The Advisory Referendum Act has been criticised for its turnout requirement. Senior lecturer Casper Albers from the University of Groningen argued that the requirement would lead to an " player" variant of the prisoner's dilemma. Due to the turnout requirement, proponents can choose whether to vote to achieve the desired outcome, whereas opponents must vote. This consideration can affect the outcome if proponents contribute decisively to the turnout and a majority votes against.[11]

In the run-up to the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement referendum in 2016, some analysts estimated that the turnout would be around 30%, expressing doubt that the requirement would be met.[12][13] The referendum had a turnout of 32.28% with a majority of 61% against.[14] Minister of the Interior Ronald Plasterk committed to an evaluation of the Act.[15]

Ukraine-EU association agreement referendum requests

Request Threshold Received Valid
Preliminary request[16] 10,000 14,441 13,480
Request 300,000 472,849 427,939

As of September 2015, for one act a referendum has been announced: on the approval act for the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement. The law received over 10,000 preliminary requests, and the deadline for receiving 300,000 referendum requests was 28 September 2015.[17] The Kiesraad announced on 14 October that a sufficient number of referendum requests had been received: 472,849 of which 427,939 were valid.

Temporary and ad hoc referendum measures

Before 2015, there was no permanent provision in law for a referendum. However, from 2002 until 2005, a Temporary Referendum Act in place, which allowed for non-binding referendums, known in Dutch as volksraadpleging ("people's consultation"), to be organised for laws already approved by the House of Representatives. No referendum was called based on this law.

In order to hold the 2005 referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, a different law was temporarily put in place. That referendum was the first national referendum in the Netherlands since the 1805 referendum in the Batavian Republic, and it was the result of an initiative proposal by parliamentarians Farah Karimi (GreenLeft), Niesco Dubbelboer (Labour) and Boris van der Ham (Democrats 66), who also initiated the Consultative Referendum Act.


  1. "Advisory Referendum Act in force". Dutch Electoral Council. 22 July 2015. Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  2. "Voorstel van wet van de leden Dubbelboer, Duyvendak en Van der Ham, houdende regels inzake het raadgevend referendum (Wet raadgevend referendum)". Government of the Netherlands (in Dutch). 24 November 2005.
  3. "Brief van de leden Duyvendak en Van der Ham". Government of the Netherlands (in Dutch). 6 June 2007.
  4. "Brief van het lid Van der Ham". Government of the Netherlands (in Dutch). 24 October 2011.
  5. "Brief van het lid Van der Ham". Government of the Netherlands (in Dutch). 8 February 2013.
  6. "Brief van het lid Van der Ham". Government of the Netherlands (in Dutch). 23 October 2013.
  7. "Overzicht van stemmingen in de Tweede Kamer" (PDF). Senate. 15 February 2015.
  8. "Initiatiefvoorstel Fokke". Senate.
  9. "Wet van 30 september 2014, houdende regels inzake het raadgevend referendum (Wet raadgevend referendum)". Staatscourant (122). 26 March 2015.
  10. "Plasterk benoemt referendumcommissie". Kiesraad. 1 October 2015.
  11. Albers, Casper (3 October 2015). "Het referendum van GeenPeil en het prisoner's dilemma" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 1 June 2016. Retrieved 23 October 2016.
  12. "Het referendum over de Associatie-overeenkomst met Oekraïne" [The Referendum about the Association Agreement with Ukraine] (PDF). I&O Research (in Dutch). 31 March 2016. Archived (PDF) from the original on 11 April 2016. Retrieved 5 April 2016.
  13. De Hond, Maurice (20 March 2016). "De Stemming van 20 maart 2016" (PDF). (in Dutch). Archived (PDF) from the original on 31 March 2016. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
  14. "Uitslag referendum Associatieovereenkomst met Oekraïne". Kiesraad. 12 April 2016. Retrieved 23 October 2016.
  15. "Plasterk: nog eens goed kijken naar referendumwet" [Plasterk: we have to take another look at the referendum act]. NOS (in Dutch). 7 April 2016. Archived from the original on 17 April 2016. Retrieved 23 October 2016.
  16. "Inleidend verzoek referendum over associatieverdrag met Oekraïne toegelaten". Kiesraad. 13 August 2015.
  17. "Inleidend verzoek referendum over associatieverdrag met Ukraine toegelaten". Kiesraad (Election Council) (in Dutch). Retrieved 26 September 2015.
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