The Dutch people could foul up a European Union bid to grant strife-torn Ukraine ‘association’ status amongst the Brussels club of 28 European countries, as they prepare to go to the polls in a referendum to decide on the issue on 6 April. Surveys show 57% of voters are set against the EU-Ukraine deal.
The EU association agreement with Ukraine has proven to be a contentious issue within the Netherlands. It was approved by their parliament in The Hague, but a referendum was triggered after 450,000 signatures were signed on a petition in protest.
The EU-Ukraine deal, which is vehemently opposed by Ukraine’s neighbour, Russia, provides key assurances to Ukraine from the EU, which amount to special status with the EU Member States.
Among the most detailed parts of the deal, are the establishment of free trade with the EU, eliminating customs duties, promoting energy cooperation, and providing financial assistance to Ukraine.
What the Dutch petition objected to was the general idea of the deal itself, which many see as a stepping stone to Ukraine’s transition into full EU membership. Voter frustration rides high in the Netherlands, with economic uncertainty, and a vociferous, well-organised and political influential anti-immigration movement.
Ukraine is beset by a long-running and vicious civil war between nationalists in the west of the vast country and the Russian-speaking population of the east, the industrial Donbass region.
A ceasefire brokered in Belarus has more or less held for the past year but that was not before a missile struck and downed Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 in July 2014 over Ukraine. The finger of blame has been pointed at the Russian separatists – but that is strongly refuted by the breakaway groups and their sponsors in Moscow.
The tragic episode had particular resonance in The Netherlands which was the country to shoulder the largest number of casualties in the attack, with 119 of the 283 who were killed, hailing from the country.
Therefore Dutch concern about security in Ukraine may be influencing them to lean towards rejecting Ukraine’s closer ties to the EU. Ukraine’s brutal civil war has already had murderous consequences for Dutch citizens and families.
The EU association agreement with Ukraine may provoke the ire of Russia, specifically the clause which specifies energy cooperation, which will challenge the bottom-line of the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
In the past, Gazprom gas supply lines to Ukraine have been used as a weapon to apply political pressure on them and other former Soviet satellite states. If the EU-Ukraine agreement goes ahead, the Kremlin will lose strategic energy leverage over Kiev.
Some leading European voices have tried to re-assure the Dutch that the EU deal would not automatically lead to Ukraine joining the Brussels-based clan. Former Belgian Prime Minister and EU Parliament leader Herman van Rompuy said that a ‘no’ vote would be “a disgrace”, adding “the agreement is definitely not the start of a membership. This was explicitly discussed. The Ukrainians insisted on it a number of times. We never yielded on that.”
However, with the UK ‘Brexit’ referendum also hanging on a knife-edge between the ‘remain’ and the ‘leave’ camps with polls opening in exactly 100 days on 23 June, the Dutch referendum could prove a Litmus test for how a majority of British voters may turn their backs on Brussels, and then what might have been a minor headache for the Eurocrats in Brussels could become a massive game-changer.