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Dutch Voters Reject European Union Pact With Ukraine

  • RFE/RL

Ukrainian students form a human chain during a rally named "Ukraine and Europe are strong together" in downtown Kyiv on April 5.

Ukrainian students form a human chain during a rally named "Ukraine and Europe are strong together" in downtown Kyiv on April 5.

The Dutch government says it may have to reconsider ratifying a treaty establishing closer European Union ties with Ukraine after a strong majority of voters rejected an Association Agreement in a nonbinding referendum.

Dutch broadcasters NOS and RTL reported that turnout for the referendum among the Netherlands' 13 million voters was 32.2 percent -- above the 30 percent minimum level that makes the vote valid -- with all of the votes having been counted and reported by municipalities to the national news agency ANP's election service.

Official results will not be known until April 12. The preliminary results show that among those who voted, 61.1 percent rejected the pact with Ukraine and 38.1 percent supported it, according to the ANP count.

European Council President Donald Tusk said he was waiting for the Dutch government's conclusions on the referendum.

"I will continue to be in contact with Prime Minister [Mark] Rutte on this, as I need to hear what conclusions he and his government will draw from the referendum and what his intentions will be," Tusk said in a statement on April 7.

"The EU-Ukraine agreement continues to be applied. The EU-Ukraine agreement has already been ratified by the other 27 member states."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko remained upbeat despite the setback. "We will continue our movement towards the European Union," he told reporters in Tokyo on April 7.

Poroshenko downplayed the importance of the referendum but said Ukraine should "take it into consideration."

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said the result of the referendum was "an important political fact."

"It means that the ratification [of the agreement] cannot proceed as was expected before," he said late on April 6. "So we have to take a step-by-step approach. Now we have to talk within the [Dutch] cabinet, with the parliament, with our European partners, also with the Ukraine, to see what the consequences of this decision might be."

French President Francois Hollande has said France and Germany will continue to back the EU-Ukraine pact despite the outcome of the Dutch referendum.

"As far as Europe is concerned, it will implement what it can of the association [agreement]," Hollande told a news conference after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 7 in Metz in eastern France.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the Netherlands Oleksandr Harin, speaking late on April 6, said he was taking positives from the referendum's outcome.

"I am looking at it from the other [angle] -- 70 percent [of Dutch voters did] not [come to] the poll and were not participating in the vote," he said. "So, if we look at the situation from this point of view, we can say that 70 percent are not satisfied with the way the campaign [has been run in the run-up to] the referendum."

Dutch Prime Minister Rutte said in a televised reaction that "if the turnout is above 30 percent, with such a large margin of victory for the 'No' camp, you can't just go ahead and ratify the treaty."

That sentiment was shared by Diederik Samsom, leader of the Labor Party, the junior partner in the governing coalition. "We can't ratify the treaty in this fashion," he said.

Anti-EU activists who pushed for the referendum declared victory.

"It looks like the Dutch people said NO to the European elite and NO to the treaty with Ukraine," tweeted popular anti-EU lawmaker Geert Wilders. "The beginning of the end of the EU."

Wilders said the Dutch referendum could act as an incentive for British voters to reject the EU in a referendum scheduled for June.

"So it could be today that it is the start of the end of the European Union as we know it today, and that would be very good," he said.

The vote highlighted a deep-rooted skepticism about the Netherlands' place in Europe and the EU's expansion to the east, incorporating ex-Soviet states and allies in recent years.

Exactly what will happen to the agreement with Ukraine now remains unclear.

The deal has already been ratified by 27 other EU states, and was being provisionally implemented even in the Netherlands after being approved last year by both houses of Parliament.

ALSO READ: What Now For Ukraine's EU Association Agreement?

Rutte said he would not be rushed into stopping implementation. He said he will discuss the voting results with his cabinet, the EU, and the Dutch parliament before deciding what to do -- a process he said could take "days if not weeks."

For the EU, options for dealing with the Dutch vote include leaving the agreement with Ukraine in force provisionally, or drafting exemption clauses for the Netherlands in the agreement.

The rejection deals a harsh blow to Ukraine at a time when its shaky government already faces a political crisis.

It also builds on the turbulent history of such pro-EU efforts in Ukraine, as it was former President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign such an agreement in late 2013 that led to violent street protests and his eventual ouster.

Yanukovych's downfall in turn led to Russia's annexation of Crimea, and a drawn-out conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that continues to dominate Ukraine's economic and political life.

The Kremlin is sure to celebrate the "no" vote, which is likely to at least slow Ukraine's march toward closer ties with the EU.

Dutch opponents of the pact with Ukraine said the bloc shouldn't be dealing with Ukraine's leadership because of widespread corruption in the country.

Just this week, leaked documents revealed Ukrainian President Poroshenko moved his candy business that made him wealthy into an offshore holding company in 2014, possibly depriving the country of millions of dollars in tax revenues. Poroshenko says the move was necessary to put his assets into a blind trust when he took office.

Dutch supporters of the Ukraine deal argued it would provide the EU with the benefit of increased trade and stability while helping Ukraine in its battle against corruption and efforts to improve human rights.

Ukrainiian ambassador Harin called the agreement a "plan for reforms which Ukraine has to execute in order to become a really civilized, liberal democracy with a socially oriented market economy."

Because it strengthens the hand of anti-EU forces, the vote will reverberate well beyond Ukraine. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had warned earlier this year that a "No" vote "would open the door to a great continental crisis."

With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP, and TASS