How a Dutch Satire Site Could Disrupt EU-Ukraine Relations

Ukrainian Parliament Hold Emergency Debate Over Recent Protests

A woman walks past a tent displaying the European Union and Ukrainian flags in Independence Square in Kiev.

Photographer: Rob Stothard/Getty Images
  • Dutch election board declares gathered signatures valid
  • All EU nations must ratify treaty for it to take effect

New rules in the Netherlands have given a satirical website the opportunity to upend a treaty between the European Union and Ukraine.

Backed by a blog best known for its political commentary, a group called GeenPeil collected enough signatures to call for a non-binding referendum on a pact that establishes closer economic ties between the EU and the former Soviet state. More than 400,000 were declared valid by the Dutch election board on Wednesday, surpassing the 300,000 threshold required to force a vote. A date still must be set.

Jan Roos at parliament with the petition
Jan Roos at parliament with the petition
Photographer: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via AP Photos

The vote will be the first test of a July regulation in the Netherlands that allows anyone who can gather enough signatures to call a non-binding referendum on almost any new law or treaty that hasn’t yet taken effect. Off limits: the constitution, the budget and the royal family. Fair game: the EU-Ukraine pact approved in 2014 and ratified by the Dutch Senate in July.

“A referendum can make the decision-making process in Europe more complicated,” said Andre Krouwel, an associate professor of political science at VU University in Amsterdam. “Holding a referendum is the worst possible way to solve a complex problem and goes against the grain of Dutch consensus democracy.”

The vote will be another sign of the disconnect that has opened up between EU leaders and their 503 million inhabitants as officials try to forge a coherent body politic to punch its weight on the global stage.

‘Ask the People’

GeenPeil chose the 2014 treaty because it is alarmed by the expansion of the EU and considers the agreement to have caused Ukraine’s war, according to campaigner Jan Roos, who appeared on television to promote the cause. The group plastered the country with posters calling on voters to back the petition and volunteers tramped the countryside gathering signatures.

Less than a month after the association agreement was signed, Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was felled by a Buk missile fired from the eastern part of Ukraine, a Dutch-led probe concluded Tuesday. The plane had entered airspace that should have been closed due to the conflict taking place on the ground, the investigators said, without commenting on whether the attack was launched by Ukrainian forces or Russian-backed rebels.

‘Complex Problem’

If GeenPeil wins the referendum, it could put pressure on the Dutch government to act to avoid a crisis. A Dutch veto would nullify a hard-fought treaty that the EU says is crucial for binding Ukraine to the West and that Russia views as a challenge to its influence in the former Soviet republic.

To win back Dutch support, EU negotiators might have to dilute their commitments to Ukraine or narrow their focus to improved trade terms just at a time when the EU is trying to figure out how to behave as a political union, said Adriaan Schout, a senior researcher at the Netherlands’ Institute for International Relations.

The treaty is “very ambitious and I think also for the relationship with the neighboring countries and Russia, it’s good to have a discussion about it,” Schout said.

As of Oct. 8, 22 of the 28 EU governments had ratified the accord. While it requires unanimity to take full effect, the EU unilaterally eased some commercial terms last year and plans to “provisionally apply” the trade pact as of January, spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said.

Roos, the campaigner, has other plans.

“What I want to achieve is that the Dutch people are being asked what they think about what’s happening for heaven’s sake concerning the EU,” said Roos. “We want the Dutch people to be taken seriously.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE