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Dutch Vote On Ukraine Deal Could Reverberate Throughout Europe

  • Rikard Jozwiak

AMSTERDAM -- Dutch voters have begun casting ballots in a poll that could say a lot about the future of the European Union.

Technically, they are voting in a referendum on whether to approve or reject the bloc's Association Agreement with Ukraine, a pact that would bring the country closer politically and economically to the EU that has been ratified by all members aside from the Netherlands.

But the impact of a "no" result -- a scenario that is predicted by opinion polls, but also dependent on sufficient voter turnout -- would be felt not only in Kyiv and Brussels, but in Moscow, London, and beyond.

First exit polls are expected immediately after stations close at 9 p.m. The European Commission is expected to announce the final results on April 7.


A "no" vote would certainly be a harsh blow to Ukraine, whose population has paid a high price for seeking closer association with the EU. It was, after all, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the Association Agreement in late 2013 that prompted the Euromaidan protests, which led to his ouster, Russia's annexation of Crimea, and a drawn-out conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

It would be celebrated by the Kremlin, which has long opposed the agreement, and would be poised to wield its influence on trade aspects of any future renegotiation process. That outrage over Russia's suspected role in the July 2014 downing of an airliner over eastern Ukraine -- in which 193 of the 298 passengers killed were Dutch -- would not translate to votes for Ukraine would be another coup for Moscow.

A "no" vote would also add fuel to rising euroskepticism amid a refugee crisis, and serve as a bad omen ahead of the United Kingdom's June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the EU.

It is less clear what would happen should the Netherlands fail to ratify the Association Agreement. It is possible that the EU could continue to provisionally apply the deal (the trade aspects of the agreement were delayed until the beginning of this year in a nod to Russian financial concerns, while the political side has been applied since autumn of 2014) meaning there would be few disruptions to existing relations. If the terms of the deal are altered, it would require more negotiations and the ratification process that began more than a year ago among the EU's 28 states would have to start anew.

WATCH: Dutch Referendum: Views From Politicians And Writers

All the mainstream Dutch parties have campaigned for a "yes" vote, arguing that it will bring more safety and economic growth both in the EU and in Ukraine.

"It's about trade, it's about safety, it's about normal things that in Europe, in the European Union are normal for us," says Alexander Pechtold, the parliamentary leader of the liberal D66 party. "We fought for it, we negotiated for it, during 70 years, and now another country, a country to the borders of the European Union, wants to have the same standards, the same values, and I think that that country -- bigger than France, with 45 million inhabitants -- should deserve the same rights as we have."

The 'No' Camp

The Dutch electorate does not appear to agree about the merits of the deal, which is intended to facilitate trade and bring Ukrainian laws and regulations closer to those of the EU.

Recent polls show that as many as 66 percent of Dutch voters would reject the agreement, although turnout would have to pass 30 percent in order for the nonbinding referendum to be valid. In that event, the Dutch government has pledged to honor the outcome.

Many voters oppose the Association Agreement in the belief that it would mark the first step toward Ukrainian membership of the EU, a notion that "yes" supporters have worked to dispel.

“There are a lot of myths that have been created around this Association Agreement," says Dutch Labor parliamentarian Marit Maij. "At all the meetings that I have participated in in the last three weeks I always try to tell people it is not in the treaty that Ukraine will become a member."

Dutch far-right parliamentary deputy Geert Wilders (left) shakes hands with a woman as he campaigns in Dordrecht for a no vote in the upcoming referendum on the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Dutch far-right parliamentary deputy Geert Wilders (left) shakes hands with a woman as he campaigns in Dordrecht for a no vote in the upcoming referendum on the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine.

But her argument fails to sway Arno Wellens, a journalist for the investigative website who will vote no on April 6.

“The problem with this Association Agreement is that it is very vague about whether or not Ukraine will join [the EU]," he says, noting references in the agreement to legal standards covering everything from energy policy to external relations on which EU-entry negotiations are based.

"This Association Agreement mentions the word acquis communautaire 25 times," Wellens says. "So people in Ukraine say, 'Hey, this will take it into the European Union.' But in Holland politicians are saying no this is not about entering the European Union because it doesn't explicitly say so, and that is the problem."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (left) takes part in a rally in Amsterdam in favor of a "yes" on the Association Agreement with Ukraine on April 3.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (left) takes part in a rally in Amsterdam in favor of a "yes" on the Association Agreement with Ukraine on April 3.


Another issue at play ahead of the vote is a general feeling of distrust toward the EU.

This vote is the first under a new law that allows citizens to call for a nonbinding vote on legislation already passed by parliament. The Dutch House of Representatives approved the agreement in April 2015, followed by the Senate that July.

The law resulted from an online petition, initiated by euroskeptic activists and an antiestablishment website arguing that citizens should have more say in EU matters, that gathered almost half a million signatures.

British politician Nigel Farage spoke about the potential impact of the vote while supporting the "no" campaign in the Dutch town of Volendam, just a few kilometers north of Amsterdam.

The leader of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) said he hopes the effects will be felt both in his own country and in Brussels.

"It is not about the technical details but it is about direction of travel, it is about governments and Brussels together fundamentally changing the nature of Europe, the direction of Europe without ever asking anybody," he said. "A 'no' vote here is a cry of 'listen to us,' but it is also a message that says we are going in the wrong direction."

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak covers the European Union and NATO for RFE/RL from his base in Brussels.​ Write to him at