Dutch Vote on EU-Ukraine Pact as Skepticism Threatens Upset

  • All other 27 EU member states have ratified the agreement
  • `No' vote seen getting majority in some polls of likely voters

Dutch people are voting on a treaty that eases relations between the European Union and Ukraine as a growing sense of skepticism toward the EU threatens to influence the outcome.

QuickTake Ukraine’s Other War

Wednesday’s non-binding referendum, the Netherlands’ first since the 2005 rejection of the EU constitution, asks voters to approve a so-called association agreement from 2014 that focuses on facilitating the trade relationship between the bloc and Ukraine. Whereas the EU’s other 27 states have waved the treaty through, some people in the Netherlands oppose what they say is a precursor to Ukraine’s accession to the EU.

The pact “is absolutely not a free-trade agreement but an integration treaty, a prelude and gateway to EU membership for Ukraine,” said Burgercomite EU, a citizens’ group that supports the Netherlands leaving the bloc and which helped push for the referendum. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said the Netherlands opposes Ukraine joining.

A Dutch rejection could complicate the relationship with Ukraine and further stoke anti-EU sentiment in a region already buckling from the strain of persistent fiscal crises and an influx of refugees. British voters will decide whether to stay in the bloc in June, and Wednesday’s referendum is being watched as a yardstick of current nationalist feelings in the region, where populist parties are gaining ground.

“The Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement may weigh on the euro by highlighting growing European political risk related to the U.K.’s EU referendum,” Hamish Pepper, a foreign-exchange strategist at Barclays Plc in London, said Tuesday. The first exit polls are scheduled to be published at 9 p.m. local time.

Premier’s Plea

The Dutch cabinet, which has pledged to take the result seriously though it’s not binding, is advocating a “Yes” vote. Despite his opposition to Ukraine ever being an EU member, Rutte, who also holds the bloc’s rotating presidency at the moment, called on people to support the treaty. “We have to help Ukraine build a legal system, democracy,” the premier was cited by Dutch national newswire ANP as saying.

The treaty has serious significance in Ukraine. It was the trigger for the deadly street protests in 2013 and 2014 and led to the ousting of its president, sparking Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian interest groups bought full-page ads in Dutch national newspapers Wednesday imploring voters to support the treaty, saying Ukrainians had worked hard to reform their country and that the accord is “urgently needed” to continue the process.

Euro Risk

The referendum was born from the swell of anti-EU feeling in the Netherlands. Arjan van Dixhoorn, chairman of Burgercomite, told newspaper NRC that while he’s not interested at all in Ukraine, his group wants to “take every opportunity to bring tension to the relationship between the Netherlands and the European Union.”

Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders took to Twitter to say that “today, the Netherlands can win back a piece of its sovereignty from the Brussels and Hague elite.” The Hague is the seat of the Dutch government.

Slightly more than half of likely voters said they would reject the treaty, according to a poll published April 2 by Dutch daily De Telegraaf with TNS NIPO. About a third of those surveyed said they planned to vote. The newspaper didn’t divulge how many were polled.

A 30 percent turnout is needed for the plebiscite to be valid. At 6 p.m., turnout in Amsterdam, the largest Dutch city, was around 13.7 percent, officials said in a post on Twitter.

Dutch Impact

Though the bill passed the Dutch lower and upper houses of parliament last year, the agreement was challenged by a new law that allows anyone to call a referendum on recently adopted legislation -- provided enough signatures are collected.

Whatever the outcome of the Dutch vote, “we as a nation can’t use any excuse to continue the very difficult reforms that my country needs, regardless of time and space,” Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko said last week. “We need to continue our reform program every single day.” The European Commission already started to implement some parts of the agreement in January, mostly in relation to trade.

The referendum is a sign of “big doubts,” about the state of European politics among a growing segment of the public, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Tuesday. He called the vote itself “a bit absurd.”

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