Tuesday

24th Apr 2018

The Dutch rooting for a No in the Ukraine referendum

  • On 6 April, Dutch voters can approve or reject the EU-Ukraine deal in a non-binding referendum (Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg)

What's in a name? Last Monday, a provincial department of the Dutch Socialist Party (SP) announced that Crimea would vote No in next week's Dutch referendum on an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Of course, the party was not referring to actual Crimea.

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Rather, it had polled inhabitants of De Krim, an eastern Dutch village that shares its name with the Ukrainian peninsula that was annexed by Russia two years ago.

The SP said it had interviewed 168 people – around 10 percent of the village's electorate. Of those who had already made up their mind, 76 percent would vote No.

However, a week before the Dutch electorate could voice its opinion in its first-ever citizens-enforced referendum, a government-commissioned national poll suggested that only half of voters had made up their mind, and they were split equally between Yes and No.

But while the Yes side is relatively uniform in its motivations and arguments (the EU-Ukraine is said to be good for trade for both sides and good for human rights), the No side consists of a more motley crew. Who are they?

The initiators

Three non-governmental groups are largely responsible for the 6 April referendum.

The first one is GeenStijl, a popular blog, which used its online presence to help gather the 300,000 signatures required to trigger the non-binding referendum.

It has used its clout to hijack online polls in the past and is known for its boorish writing style - the name means “no style”, or “no class”. The website is often critical of figures in authority, especially the EU.

During the campaign to collect the signatures, it advertised the gains as winning “a real national EU referendum”, rather than wanting to have a say on the specific deal with Ukraine. In an interview with Dutch news website Nu.nl, one of the website's writers said they wanted the referendum "to for once be consulted about European decisions".

GeenStijl had teamed up with two foundations, Burgercomite EU (Citizens' committee EU) and Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy). These had previously tried to persuade MPs to hold an in/out referendum on Dutch EU membership, and are critical of traditional democracy in which voters show up only once every four years to elect representatives.

While the three groups use Ukraine-specific arguments in their campaigns, it's clear they are really using the Ukraine deal as a means to vote about the EU.

The populists

The same goes for eurosceptic Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom, which currently holds 12 seats in the 150-seat Lower House of parliament. His party realises that for many voters an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine is a very abstract issue.

When this website asked Wilders earlier this month whether he would use his anti-EU stance to convince voters to reject the Ukraine treaty, he noted that any additional association agreement “means more Europe”.

“It is the same. It is a treaty of the European Union, which leads to more European Union. It is the European Union,” Wilders told EUobserver.

Two MPs who split from Wilders' group are also against the treaty, and against European integration beyond economic cooperation.

Their new right-wing group Voor Nederland (For the Netherlands) will host British MEP Nigel Farage next week to talk about the referendum. Farage has said a Dutch No “will help in Britain too”.

The socialists

However, there are also political parties that are campaigning specifically against the Ukraine treaty, like the aforementioned Socialist Party, which is the largest opposition party (15 seats) in the Dutch Lower House, and is also represented in the European Parliament.

MEP Dennis de Jong recently told EUobserver it would be mostly multinational firms who would profit from the treaty, and not regular Ukrainians.

“I expect great unemployment,” he said.

The left-wing MEP also thinks that the agreement will “pull that country apart”, and criticised the EU and Nato for “surrounding” Russia.

“That is not because we like the Russians so much, or because we like Putin,” he said, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“If you look at the map, you see the increased pressure towards the east. That is not wise.”

The SP and others in the No camp have denied rumours that Russian money is funding their campaign. De Jong stressed that his party was critical of Russia's annexation of Crimea, and of human rights violations in Russia.

“Putin does a lot of things wrong, geopolitically, but don't give him extra arguments by making your own policy appear this aggressive,” he said.

De Jong said he had seen two different factions emerging from the No camp: a shouty populist right camp and a “social No”.

“With us, you have to use your brain,” he said.

The animal friends

There is another party on the left that is opposed to the agreement, which is the idiosyncratic Dutch animal rights party.

The Party for the Animals (two seats) is against the EU-Ukraine deal because farm animals “are treated even worse than here”, and because in Ukraine “very young children” work in the agriculture sector.

“Ukrainian eggs come from huge battery cages, that have been forbidden in the EU for years,” the party's leader Marianne Thieme and its MEP Anja Hazekamp recently wrote in an opinion piece.

They expect that animal welfare, human rights, and environmental standards will be watered down o accomodate Ukraine, and draw a link with other heavily criticised trade agreements like the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

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