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17th Oct 2021

Dutch ministers: Avoid Putin talk before Ukraine referendum

  • Pro-EU protest in Kiev, 2013. Dutch cabinet members have been advised how to answer questions about an upcoming referendum on the EU-Ukraine treaty (Photo: mac_ivan)

Dutch government members are told not to focus on geopolitical security when discussing arguments to vote Yes in the referendum on an EU-Ukraine trade treaty, and not to use a “pro- or anti-Putin-frame”, because the government would then be perceived as “scaremongering”.

The advice is written up in two internal documents, published by Dutch broadcaster RTL on Thursday (18 February). According to RTL, the texts, written by Dutch civil servants for ministers, were due to be discussed during the weekly cabinet meeting on Friday.

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On 6 April, Dutch voters will be able to give their opinion about the association and free trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine, in a citizen-enforced, non-binding referendum.

One of the “key messages” that government representatives should deliver is that it is “good to hear citizens' opinions on an important foreign topic”, but that the association agreement is not a first step for Ukraine to become an EU member.

“The Netherlands is against membership of Ukraine and has a veto”, the document said in one of the 46 ready-made answers to expected questions from journalists or citizens.

Prime minister Mark Rutte implicitly confirmed the authenticity of the documents Thursday in Brussels, by congratulating the journalists who had uncovered them.

“Nothing can remain a secret,” he said jokingly, adding with a mock angry voice he “absolutely did not mind” the papers were leaked.

Do this, do not do that

The papers also listed dos and don'ts.

“Use arguments like democratisation/stability in Ukraine, trade, and cooperation”, it said under dos. It also said ministers should refer to a “cooperation agreement”, because the phrase association agreement “would not be understood”.

Don'ts include: focusing too much on the security aspect “(Russia)”; making the treaty look “nicer than it really is”; following interlocutors into a “broadening of the debate” on euroscepticism and the government's achievements; or using “heavy" words.

As an example, government officials should avoid phrases like: “The lights would go off”.

The phrase was a reference to an ominous warning in 2005 by minister for economic affairs Laurens Jan Brinkhorst about what would happen if the Dutch voted against the European Constitutional Treaty.

The Dutch government is clearly trying to avoid repeating mistakes made by predecessors during the Yes campaign ahead of the 2005 referendum, which was lost with 61.5 percent No votes.

The 2005 experience helps explain why prime minister Rutte is not actively campaigning, possibly for fear of triggering rebellious behaviour by people who want to vote against anything the government is in favour of.

However, the document noted that a possible response to the question “Why is the government not campaigning?” could be: “We are not going to distribute flyers or hang up posters. But we will participate in the debate. You may call that campaigning, if you wish.”

What would happen if citizens vote No on 6 April?

“Then there will have to be talks at the level of the European Council [of government leaders] to find a solution, as is common when a treaty is shipwrecked.”

However, the document also said that if pressed on what the consequences of a No would be, the answer is: the provisional application of the treaty, which went into force on 1 January, “would not automatically stop”.

Although ministers are advised not to use a “Putin frame”, they are also told that in the case of a No the Russian reaction “is not unimportant”, and that they can say that Russia would be “happy” about a No.

Supporters (who weren't informed)

RTL also published a leaked one-page document which lists supporters of the Yes side.

Those on the list however do not appear to have been consulted. The list features some unexpected candidates, like the national railway service NS.

“I have no idea how we ended up on that list,” NS spokesperson Eric Trinthamer told this website.

“Our business is to operate trains, and we are not going to campaign in favour or against an association agreement.”

Military alliance Nato is also on the list, and specifically the name of Dutch brigadier general Nico Tak, which was a surprise to Nato spokesperson Matthias Eichenlaub.

“Ukraine is one of our closest partners, but I can tell you from experience that we usually do not interfere in national political debates,” said Eichenlaub, adding it is “very unlikely” the alliance will campaign in favour of a Yes vote in the Netherlands.

The list also included six Dutch members of the European Parliament, including two from the christian democrat party CDA, currently in the opposition.

Spokesperson Dirk Gotink told this website that the two MEPs, Esther de Lange and Wim van de Camp, had not been approached to campaign on behalf of the government.

Gotink noted that while CDA MEPs will defend the treaty when asked about it, they are not going do the government's job.

He also questioned the quality of the list, from which many pro-treaty MEPs were missing, as well as Rutte's centre-right party. It also misspelled the name of Greens MEP Bas Eickhout.

EU Council chief Donald Tusk, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, and neighbourhood policy commissioner Johannes Hahn are also on the list, but so is Hahn's Czech predecessor Stefan Fuele, who few people in the Netherlands will know.

Under the headline of celebrities, it lists two Ukrainian football players who haven't played for a Dutch team since 2009 and 2011.

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