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19th Jan 2020

Dutch PM to campaign for Yes in EU-Ukraine referendum

  • Rutte (l) with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, also a supporter of the Ukraine treaty, in Amsterdam on Thursday (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The Dutch government plans to campaign for a Yes in an upcoming referendum on the EU-Ukraine free-trade agreement.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who currently holds the EU presidency, told press in Amsterdam on Thursday (7 January) the pact is good for Europe and good for the Netherlands.

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  • Port of Rotterdam. 'We are a trading nation,' Rutte said (Photo: Andre Skibinski)

“I’ll be out there and I’ll be explaining to people why we signed this agreement … We are a trading nation. We live by free trade agreements and Ukraine is another example of this,” he said.

“People who are inclined to vote No think it’s a first step to EU membership. It has nothing to do with accession,” he added.

Rutte, who comes from the mildly eurosceptic liberal VVD party in the ruling coalition, said the whole government backs the Ukraine treaty.

His foreign minister, Bert Koenders, from the pro-EU PvdA party, said it serves Dutch security interests, by helping to stabilise the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, and that it’s “important for both our [Dutch and Ukrainian] economies.”

“We will actively put forward what we think the answer should be, which is Yes,” Koenders said.

The referendum, to take place on 6 April following a petition organised by civil society, is non-binding.

If Dutch people say No, the government must “reassess” its decision. But it’s unclear what would happen if the assessment caused a U-turn.

The treaty was, last year, ratified by Dutch MPs and promulgated by the Dutch King. It also entered into force on 1 January.

Koenders noted he can’t say in advance what a reassessment might lead to.

“If we say in advance ‘Yes, we will follow the result’ then it would create a precedent for all referendums of this type. If we say ‘No, we won’t’ then it would undermine the referendum law, which is a democratic instrument,” the minister said.

MH17 factor

The Dutch public is sensitive to Ukraine due to the MH17 air disaster in July 2014, in which hundreds of Dutch nationals died when a Russian rocket shot down a passenger plane en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Rutte said: “We have not seen a link so far [between MH17 and the referendum] but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Speaking more broadly on Dutch policy on Russia, Koenders added that MH17 “is not formally, or even informally connected to the [EU] sanctions discussion.”

Both men promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Koenders said criminal investigators from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine will “in the next half-year” put forward their findings.

But it’s unknown how suspects will be put on trial after Russia vetoed a UN-level tribunal, with Rutte saying only that he’ll wait until the investigation ends before deciding how to proceed.

No Russian veto

The next six months will see Russia relations tested further if Nato takes in Montenegro and if it agrees to Poland’s request for permanent military bases.

The Netherlands is happy to let France and Germany lead the way on EU-Russia relations. But it says Russia doesn’t have a “veto” on Nato decisions.

Rutte noted the Montenegro decision will be based on internal Nato talks.

Koenders said “it’s important to keep bridges open” with Russia. But he added that “Russia doesn’t have the right to veto the decisions of independent nations.”

“The Russian Federation is an important country. But unfortunately, in Ukraine, it chose to unilaterally change the rules of the game which we had agreed upon,” he said.

“We should move away from the politics of spheres of influence and accept the sovereign decisions of independent states.”

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