Dutch voters reject EU-Ukraine partnership and open a new pandora’s box for the EU

Mark Rutte the Netherlands

Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister at the EU Summit last March. (EU Council TVNewsroom, 17/03/2016)

Last Wednesday, April 6, a vast majority of Dutch voters clearly said “no” to a European Union-Ukraine pact on tighter political and economic ties. Despite a very low turnout (32.2%), which was anyway above the 30% threshold for the vote to be valid, the Dutch referendum delivered a very strong message to the European Parliament, with a 61.1% of the votes rejecting the deal, compared with 38.1% in favour.

Background

The broad political, trade and defence treaty, part of a wider Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, had already been approved by all EU nations, the Euratom and Ukraine back in 2014. It took effect provisionally last January, but was still waiting for a formal ratification by all signatories, plus an official approval by the Netherlands, after a request to hold a referendum about the proposed deal was issued. The response to the question “Are you for or against the Approval Act of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine?” given by the Dutch people now creates a big issue for Brussels.

Food for Euroscepticism

Although the referendum is non-binding and the European Commission will propose anyway visa-free travel conditions to Ukrainians, as declared by a senior EU source last Sunday, last Wednesday’s results can represent the start of a turbulent phase within the 28-member states bloc. In an interview earlier this year with a Dutch newspaper, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that a “no” vote would “open the door to a great continental crisis”, as reported by the Associated Press. Indeed the results opens the gateway of fierce critics about the stability of the Union, and provides Eurosceptic groups and populists with tons of reasons to raise their voice. Voters said they were voicing their opposition not only to the treaty itself but also to European policymakers on matters ranging from the migrant crisis to austerity policy.

Reactions from within the EU

“It looks like the Dutch people said ‘no’ to the European elite and ‘no’ to the treaty with Ukraine”, far-right Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders said on Wednesday evening. “The beginning of the end of the EU”, he then stressed.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte himself said right after the vote: “If the turnout is above 30 percent, with such a big victory for the ‘No’ camp, you can’t just go ahead and ratify the treaty”. However, Mr. Rutte said he would not be rushed into action, claiming he wanted to “consult” with his Cabinet, with the European Union and the Dutch Parliament “step by step”, in a process that could take “days if not weeks”, as reported by Reuters and the Associated Press.

Voices from the former Soviet bloc

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko spread optimism and said on Thursday his country will continue moving towards the European Union despite the Dutch vote. “Under any circumstances we will continue to implement the association agreement with the European Union including a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement”, he told reporters in Tokyo.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, for his part, said the result was “an indication of European attitudes to the Ukrainian political system”.

It is very important to keep in mind that the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement played a critical role in the whole Ukrainian-Russian crisis. President Poroshenko’s rise to power indeed was triggered by protests and demonstrations against Ukrainian former government in February 2014, when the then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement.

Concerns in the States

The United States, which has supported Kiev’s efforts to move closer to the West since the beginning of the crisis, expressed disappointment at the outcome of the Dutch vote. “Clearly we’re disappointed by the results, but we do respect the views of the Dutch people,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, adding: “We respect the Dutch political process”. Mr. Toner also said it was too soon to know what implications the vote would have for Ukraine’s ambitions of closer ties with the EU.

A delicate phase

This vote is definitely food for very critic thoughts over the “state of the Union”, on this side of the Atlantic. The Netherlands is a founding member of the EU, a trading nation that benefits from its internal market and that can be compared to member States like Germany and France for its political importance. At the same time, the Northern European nation is also a breeding-ground for a very proud Euroscepticism. Indeed last week’s referendum is not the first big “Dutch blow” for the EU, being the second in the Netherlands after the 2005 referendum on European Constitution, when the country rejected the bloc’s proposed constitution with a 61.5% “no” response.

European opponents to the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement argued that its ultimate goal is bringing Kiev into the EU. The detractors of the deal, many of whom belong to the Dutch Eurosceptic front, claim that the bloc shouldn’t be dealing with Ukraine’s leadership because of the widespread corruption in the country. President Petro Poroshenko himself has been accused several times of tax evasion and office abuse, following the leak of millions of records on offshore accounts.

Brexit vote looming

The Dutch vote can be also a very worrisome indicator as it only came less than three months before the British referendum on whether to stay in the EU or leave. UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who is currently facing a very heavy opposition amid the Panama Papers scandal, knows the importance of the Dutch vote very well, and is aware that he needs to consolidate a strong “pro-EU front” to avoid a historic defeat.

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 organisation or do we leave?”, Reuters reported a few days ago. “But I think it is important that the European institutions and the Dutch government […] listen carefully to what people have said, and try to […] work with that rather than saying this is something they can’t deal with”, he also added.

An alarm

All in all, the Dutch vote is a bad case for the EU: low turnout, lack of interest by voters, extremely negative result. On top of that, the worst thing is that it looks like every time European citizens are asked directly if they want to follow the current political vision behind the EU, they say no. At the same time, last week’s message represents a very decisive slowdown not only for Ukraine on its path towards the EU, but also for the fulfilment of another EU-marked trade deal.

Time for the EU to consider all those signs even when planning and negotiating other big trade pacts like the TTIP with the US. Indeed the only positive role the Dutch voice can play right now is to sound like a wake-up call for EU policymakers or pro-EU political parties ahead of the British vote.

But, again, only if we believe it is not too late already.

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