By Paul Taylor
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's long-running problem with voters just got a little worse after the Dutch rejected an agreement on closer EU ties with Ukraine, highlighting the difficulties of further European integration.
Coming less than three months before a British referendum on whether to stay in the EU or leave after 43 years of semi-detached membership, the Dutch vote rang alarm bells in London and Brussels.
Less than a third of the electorate turned out for the consultative Dutch referendum, forced by a grassroots petition launched by eurosceptics. But it was enough to make the ballot valid and oblige Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government to take account of the result.
Jubilant eurosceptic Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders called it "the beginning of the end of the EU". His British counterpart, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, said: "Their 'No' to the EU was a tremendous victory for democracy."
The EU's usual way of handling such setbacks - pressing ahead while giving some side-assurances to the country that voted "No" - only fuels anger among critics who see it as an elitist technocracy that ignores the popular will.
"It will probably lead to a cosmetic solution, a little legal fix, which in future will give more reasons to vote 'No'," said Luuk Van Middelaar, a Dutch historian and an aide to former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. "This is the vicious circle of euroscepticism, which keeps fuelling itself."
The Dutch "No" extended a dismal run of EU defeats since 2000 in plebiscites in Denmark and Sweden on joining the euro, and in Ireland, France and the Netherlands on approving new treaties giving greater powers to Brussels.
Most recently the Danish government lost a referendum on opting back in to more EU judicial and police cooperation.
Almost every time a European government has asked voters any question about "more Europe", the answer has been "No". The few exceptions included two in Ireland, where voters approved EU treaties at the second attempt after Dublin secured extra assurances from its EU partners following referendum "No" votes.
"This confirms a 21st century trend that all referendums with the EU on the ballot paper result in 'No' to Europe," former British Europe Minister Denis MacShane told Reuters.
"A low turnout helps the anti-EU/Brexit vote. If in UK the referendum has the same turnout as the European Parliament elections (35 percent in 2014) then Brexit wins," said MacShane, a pro-European who has forecast a Brexit vote since last year.
TURNOUT IS KEY
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the risky UK vote in response to rising euroscepticism that was tearing apart his Conservative party, is acutely aware that he needs to mobilize the electorate to avoid an historic debacle.
Cameron made a big pitch on Thursday to young people, who polls show are more pro-European than their elders but less likely to vote, to register and cast ballots on June 23.
Asked about the Dutch vote, he said: "I don't think it has any effect on us because we've got a bigger question: do we stay in this organization or do we leave?
"But I think it is important that the European institutions and the Dutch government ... listen carefully to what people have said, and try to understand that and try to work with that rather than saying this is something they can't deal with."
Edouard Lecerf, global director of Political and Opinion at pollster TNS-Sofres, said the main lesson from the Netherlands for Britain was that the ability of the rival camps to get their supporters to go out and vote will be crucial.
"We often see that in European elections or votes about Europe, opponents of the EU have a greater capacity to mobilize than supporters," he told Reuters.
"The European question has a way of crystallizing a whole series of discontents about institutions, policies and elites, with a high electoral payoff," he said.
Early polling in Britain suggested barely more than half the electorate may take part in the referendum, Lecerf said, even though the economic and strategic stakes are far higher than in the Dutch vote on an arcane issue that stirred few passions.
Some of the Dutch electors who bothered to turn out took the chance to vent discontent over the economy, immigration, globalisation or the Rutte government's policies rather than EU ties with Ukraine.
The same could easily happen in Britain, where Cameron has been weakened by divisions in his party, a crisis in the steel industry, questions about his late father's use of a Panama-based offshore company and anger over welfare spending cuts.
"THE ENEMY OF INTEGRATION"
European unity was driven after World War Two by political leaders in France and Germany, but also Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, who had national electoral mandates and parliamentary support, but most did not put the issue directly to their electorates until the 1990s.
When they did, they got a nasty surprise. French voters only approved by a whisker the Maastricht Treaty on economic and monetary union that created the euro single currency, after the Danes had initially rejected it in a 1993 referendum.
French President Francois Hollande, traumatized by the 2005 referendum defeat of the EU's Constitutional Treaty which split his Socialist party, has done everything to avoid treaty change for deeper euro zone integration to avert another plebiscite.
The EU has advanced beyond the single market integration that could be sliced into a technocratic process and entered far more politically sensitive areas of control over national budgets, borders and foreign policy.
In the Dutch case, the mainstream center-right and center-left parties which all supported the Ukraine deal were in a bind. As democrats, they could not publicly urge supporters to abstain in the country's first grassroots-driven referendum, but many quietly hoped that "tactical abstention" would keep turnout below the threshold for the vote to be valid.
Some senior EU officials say referendums are inimical to the European project because they allow voters in a single country to block or delay agreements approved by other national parliaments, causing deadlock. All 27 other EU states have ratified the Ukraine pact.
"Plebiscitary democracy is the enemy of European integration but it is the rising trend. I don't see how we avoid it and I don't see how we can advance with it," said one senior official, who requested anonymity because he does not speak for the EU institutions.
The EU's most ardent federalists see the answer to the conundrum as lying in more pan-European democracy and greater powers for the directly elected European Parliament, even though many voters see their national parliament as the center of democratic life and most did not cast an EU ballot last time.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a federalist who leads the centrist liberal group in the EU legislature, said he was not surprised by the Dutch outcome.
"Europe is not capable of dealing with the big crises we face," he said. "We can only solve this by working more closely together and reform Europe. It is time for another way for Europe."
(Writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Peter Millership)