By Bill Marmon, Managing Editor European Affairs
Although the voter turnout was low and the result not binding, the resounding (61 percent to 38 percent) rejection by Dutch voters this week of the trade and cooperation agreement between Ukraine and the European Union was an embarrassment to supporters of European solidarity.
The referendum, organized by Euroskeptics, is non-binding since the Dutch parliament has already approved the Association Agreement with Ukraine—the same agreement that sparked the Maidan violence and government upheaval in Ukraine two years ago when the former prime minister refused to sign the agreement. But since the turnout this week of 32.2 percent was just above the 30 percent required for validity, it is likely that the Dutch parliament will reconsider the issue.
The other 27 EU nations have approved the Ukraine agreement and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said after the vote that Ukraine will expand its cooperation with the EU, despite the Dutch rejection.
The Dutch vote was hailed by Euroskeptic politicians outside the Netherlands. Nigel Farage of UKIP, the UK Independence Party described the result as “hors d’oeuvres” before the “main course” of the UK’s referendum on EU membership on June 23.
Referendum organizers in the Netherlands, known as “Geen-Peil,” meaning “not a clue” and supposed to characterize the EU, have freely admitted to news organizations that the issue was more about promoting debate about the way the EU is run than about Ukraine’s relation with the EU. “No” supporters cite the adoption of the Ukraine agreement without popular consideration as an example of the anti-democratic EU operation.
The vote also demonstrated voter opposition to further enlargement of the EU since an Association Agreement is seen by some as a precursor to full EU membership. The vote will, according to Rem Korteweg, a Dutch senior research fellow at London’s Centre for European Reform, speaking to Politico, “Slow the accession process down …The Dutch government will find it difficult to agree to enlargement with any state at this juncture.”
Netherlands has minimal trade with Ukraine and supporters of the agreement tried to characterize the vote as a referendum on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has vehemently denounced the EU agreement. Supporters see Putin as a bully because of his actions in Ukraine. A digitally manipulated poster created by “yes” backers and displayed in the Amsterdam subway showed Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who opposed the agreement, and Putin in a passionate kiss.
With respect to next steps, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “My view is that if the turnout is more than 30 percent [which it was], with such a victory for the “no” camp, ratification cannot go ahead without discussion.” It seems unlikely, however, that the Dutch referendum will scrap the agreement which has been in force provisionally since the first of the year. Worst case would likely be a carve out for Netherlands if its parliament reverses the earlier approval vote.