Dutch citizens voted last week against a political and economic Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine in a result that has been billed by some analysts as a potential sign of growing difficulties in the 28-nation European Union.
To date, the Association Agreement has already been ratified by 27 of the 28 EU member states. The trade pact within it, known as the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), was already ratified by both the Ukrainian and European Parliaments in 2014, and has been in application since 1 January of this year. (See Bridges Weekly, 14 January 2016)
The other parts of the Association Agreement have been provisionally applied since late 2014.
The pact itself has long been controversial, given that divisions within Ukraine over whether to back the trade deal had sparked the 2013 protests that ultimately led to the country’s geopolitical crisis. The trade agreement has repeatedly drawn the ire of Russia, which has cited concerns over its compatibility with Moscow’s own trade accords with Kiev.
Internal EU friction?
In last week’s referendum, around 61 percent of Dutch voters opted to reject the pact, though analysts disagree over the motives behind the choice. However, many have also remarked on the low levels of voter turnout – 32 percent, just above the necessary 30 percent threshold for the result to be deemed valid.
Even so, some analysts argue that the result could be a worrisome indicator of broader “Euroscepticism” across the 28-nation bloc, especially with the “Brexit” referendum in the UK scheduled for 23 June. The Netherlands currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, due to end in June.
“The referendum wasn’t about Ukraine…In their [Dutch referendum organisers] view, the EU is an undemocratic institution, run by technocrats, that does not respect the will of the people,” said Tim Boersma of the Brookings Institution in a blog post.
Earlier this year, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had warned that a “no” vote could lead to a “continental crisis,” in comments to Dutch news outlet NRC Handelsbad. “Russia would pluck the fruits of an easy victory,” he said.
Following the vote, a spokesperson for the Commission head said that Juncker was “triste” – or sad – as a result, while stressing the continued commitment of the EU’s executive arm to deepening ties with Kiev.
Meanwhile, on the Ukrainian side, President Petro Poroshenko said that the result of the referendum “will not be a strategic obstacle for Ukraine on the path to Europe.” Some supporters of the Association Agreement have suggested that the accord could potentially pave the way for Kiev to join the European Union in the long term.
The implications of the referendum for the Dutch government and the future of the EU-Ukraine accord itself remain to be seen, given that last week’s vote was non-binding.
In a statement, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that a “step by step approach” will be needed going forward, first to achieve greater “clarity” on the result, followed by cabinet-level discussions with the Dutch parliament, EU partners, and Kiev.
“If this is the outcome, we will have to consider this advice carefully. It implies a political fact that the ratification cannot just proceed,” he said. “This process will take time, not just days, probably weeks.”