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What Now For Ukraine's EU Association Agreement?

  • Rikard Jozwiak

Dutch voters have upset the European apple cart by voting against an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine in a closely watched test of anti-Brussels sentiment.

In a nonbinding referendum whose only real mystery lay in whether it would attract sufficient turnout to be valid, the Netherlands became the lone EU member state to reject the deal, which would usher in advantageous trade terms for Ukraine and whose signing was seen as a victory for Kyiv over anti-Western pressure from Moscow.

The defeat packs a symbolic wallop for Ukraine, where the Euromaidan unrest that toppled the government nearly two years ago was fueled in large part by a desire for closer relations with the EU. But it could also block planned visa liberalization for Ukrainians who wish to travel to EU states.

And the Dutch snub could send into a swoon those trying to read the mood ahead of what could be a tight vote in the United Kingdom in June on a possible British exit, aka Brexit, from the EU.

The EU's 27 other member states have already ratified the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Both chambers of the Dutch parliament even voted in favor of it last year. But, crucially, for the ratification process to be completed, the Netherlands' so-called instrument of ratification must be signed by the appropriate Dutch official and submitted to Brussels. That is a usually straightforward matter that has now been made more contentious by the April 6 referendum.

So what happens now to the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement? Here are six possible scenarios that Brussels and Amsterdam might be considering:

The Dutch Government Ignores The Vote

The likelihood of the government in Amsterdam ignoring the referendum's outcome was said to hinge on the final margin of defeat. But the reality is that even this "no" vote -- which snuck in just above the 30 percent requirement for turnout -- forces Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government to carry out its pledge to "reconsider" the Ukrainian agreement. So while it needn't necessarily change its stance, it must be seen to be seriously examining such a possibility.

The Dutch Come Out Firmly Against The Association Agreement

The Dutch government wants to play it cool, consult parliament, and digest what the result actually means. But the victorious "no" camp will certainly seek a quick statement of intent from the government. Geert Wilder's anti-EU Freedom Party, in particular, which has campaigned vociferously against the deal, won't let the ruling coalition forget that it has lost an important vote one year ahead of the next Dutch general election. The problem with renegotiating the entire Association Agreement, however, is that the 27 other EU member states have already ratified it and parts of the text have been provisionally applied since 2014.

The Dutch referendum law is new and this vote is a first. But even so, no EU leader is keen to undermine the sovereignty of his or her own government and national parliament, nor do they want to encourage similar citizen referendums in their own countries if they prove to be that powerful.

The Association Agreement Is Stripped Down Further

This scenario seeks to salvage only those parts of the Association Agreement that are exclusively among the competences of the EU -- such as trade. This option is legally messy, however. Will it require a new ratification process in all the EU member states? And what to do with areas of mixed policy competences between the EU institution and EU member states, such as agriculture and transport?

A Unilateral Declaration By The Dutch Government On The Association Agreement

The Dutch government ratifies the Association Agreement but also notes that its citizens have qualms about it. They are likely to conclude that the Dutch worry that the treaty will lead to Ukraine becoming an EU member. Upon handing over its instruments for ratification to Brussels, the Dutch government also submits a declaration stating that it doesn't regard this treaty as a first step to Ukrainian membership. This is likely the preferred option in EU eyes.

A Declaration By The 27 Other EU Member States On The Association Agreement

Like the scenario above, except that the other 27 member states add a declaration, possibly to complement a Dutch declaration, that the Association Agreement doesn't entail EU membership for Ukraine. This might prove contentious for EU member states that have been very supportive of Ukraine signing such a document, such as Poland, Sweden, and Lithuania.

Live And Let Live

Two other scenarios are available that can still show that an agreement with the EU remains in place despite obstacles. Each arises from recent experience.

First, an Association Agreement between the EU and Bosnia-Herzegovina was signed in 2008 but didn't enter into force until 2015, due mainly to Sarajevo's lack of progress on reforms. For the intervening seven years, an interim agreement was in force providing a legal framework for trade between the EU and Bosnia.

Second, in 2014, the Swiss narrowly voted in a referendum in favor of reintroducing strict quotas for immigration from EU countries, contradicting a Swiss-EU deal on free movement. Two years on, the sides are still negotiating while people are moving freely across the borders.

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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 rikard.jozwiak@gmail.com

     

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