Tuesday

18th Dec 2018

Dutch vote in uncertain Ukraine referendum

  • Yes campaigners handed out T-shirts in Amsterdam's central station on Wednesday (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The Dutch are voting in a referendum on an EU-Ukraine association agreement, which is also a vote on the country's attitude towards Europe and has potentially embarrassing geopolitical consequences.

The referendum, which was triggered by a public petition, has left many people confused. The latest opinion polls put the No camp ahead, but with a high level of undecided voters.

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According to Ipsos, 37 percent intend to vote against the agreement and 30 percent in favour, but 33 percent still do not know what to vote.

In another poll, for the Volkskrant newspaper, the No camp was supported by 47 percent, 36 percent backed a Yes vote and 18 percent were undecided. But when respondents were told that "no opinion" was not allowed, the No majority was 57-43.

The number of undecided voters, and whether they will go to the polling stations, will be crucial as the referendum needs a 30-percent turnout to be valid.

The government, which campaigned for a Yes vote, would not be bound by a No vote but would be faced with political problems both domestically and externally.

Boosted by the EU referendum held in the UK in June, the No campaign used the EU-Ukraine vote as a pretext for a wider debate on the EU itself.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the British eurosceptic party UKIP, visited the Netherlands last week to support the No campaign and drag the Dutch vote into his Brexit campaign.

“You have to understand, we don't care about Ukraine,” the leader of a No group told a Dutch newspaper last week, adding they were using “all opportunities to create tensions between the Netherlands and the EU”.

As for eurosceptic leader Geert Wilders, he told EUobserver last month that the EU-Ukraine agreement meant "more Europe”.

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

A No vote would put more pressure on the government of Mark Rutte, a coalition between liberals and social-democrats, to take a more eurosceptic stance, especially on issues like migration, the Schengen free-movement area or eurozone policies.

Rutte's position would be all the more awkward as Netherlands is currently holding the rotating EU presidency.

A No vote would also put Rutte in a difficult position inside the EU.

The Netherlands is the only EU country that has not yet ratified the agreement with Ukraine, which was signed in 2014.

A No vote could have a destabilising effect on a still uncertain situation in Ukraine, as well as between the EU and Russia.

Rocked by political instability, corruption cases and the conflict in the east, Ukraine is also under pressure from the EU to implement reforms boosting democracy, transparency and accountability.

These reforms are required to grant Ukrainians visa-free travel to Europe and guarantee the implementation of the Minsk agreement for a solution to the conflict.

In January, the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, said in a Dutch newspaper that a No vote could trigger a "continental crisis".

The referendum campaign in Netherlands has been marked by suspicions of Russian manipulation, with Ukraine being branded a country plagued by fascism, warnings that a Yes vote would open all borders between the EU and Ukraine and even a video threatening of a terror attack if Dutch voted No.

Many voters also believe that a Yes vote would open the way to a Ukrainian membership of the EU.

In fact, a Yes vote would not open EU borders, nor would it pave the way for EU accession. And a No would not stop the EU-Ukraine association agreement.

EU commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on Tuesday that the political parts of the deal had been “provisionally applied” since 1 November 2014.

He added that the implementation of the trade part of the agreement, the so-called DFCTA, had begun on 1 January this year.

Stopping the "provisional" implementation of the deal would require the agreement of all EU countries, something that is very unlikely.

Polling stations will close at 21:00 on Wednesday.

The Dutch rooting for a No in the Ukraine referendum

Next week, the Dutch will cast their opinion on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. While the Yes side is fairly uniform in its composition and logic, the No side is a motley crew. Who are they?

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