He was sending a message to Brussels. Kiev should take note.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Dutch Voters Snub Kiev, Not Brussels

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

It's easy to discount the outcome of Wednesday's Dutch referendum on Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union as another sign of minority discontent with the European project. It has far more significance than that though, particularly for Ukraine: The faltering state has failed to gain support among ordinary Europeans, and that's nobody's fault but its own.

The non-binding referendum is the first one of its kind, an application of a new law that allows the Dutch people to hold plebiscites on any piece of legislation if more than 300,000 signatures can be gathered in support of the vote. It was initiated by the anti-EU satirical news website GeenStijl ("NoStyle") to "send a message to the Hague and to Brussels" that the Dutch people wouldn't blindly approve the EU's expansion efforts, the way the Netherlands government has done by consenting to the association. It's not that the euroskeptics were particularly concerned about Ukraine -- they were just out to prove that the "EUligarchs," as the website calls Brussels bureaucrats and national politicians aligned with them, were doing things that ordinary people didn't fully understand. 

QuickTake Ukraine's Other War

Which, of course, was the case with the Ukraine agreement: Few people in Europe really understand it. That allowed the referendum's organizers to present the trade deal as a step toward Ukraine's full accession to the EU, a goal loudly proclaimed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko but not by bureaucrats in Brussels. 

"More democracy in the EU" was the rallying cry, and for some politicians, such as Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, the referendum was a chance to test support for a Dutch exit from the bloc. "The EU is an expansionist monster," Wilders wrote in a recent article for Breitbart.com. "It would be very bad if it were allowed to grow even further. As a matter of fact, the EU should be abolished."

In that respect the referendum was a failure. Since only 32 percent of the Netherlands' registered voters turned out, the outcome means that, if they saw the vote as a proxy on the EU, only about 20 percent of Dutch disapprove of the EU's policies. There's nothing new about that: The Europskeptic right has reached similar support levels in a number of countries lately, and even in Germany, the leading state of the European project, an anti-EU party polls around 13 percent these days.

This is a sizable minority but not a major threat to the union. Rather it is a signal to its leaders that they should work in a more open and transparent, less disdainfully technocratic way if they want voters to keep backing them. The Netherlands, a core EU member, is still not the U.K., where more than 40 percent of the voters support leaving the EU, according to polls. There's no reason for Wilders to celebrate.

On another count, though, the referendum delivered a lot more clarity and a more actionable message, although not an easy one to implement.

After two years of detailed, sympathetic media coverage of Ukraine's "Revolution of Dignity" and its subsequent efforts to leave the Russian orbit and reform the economy along European lines, only about 12 percent of Dutch voters turned out to support the fledgling pro-European democracy. It would be convenient to say the Dutch don't really know or care about Ukraine, but it would also be untrue. The July 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, most likely by pro-Russian rebels, took 193 Dutch lives. It's one of the biggest such tragedies in the country's modern history, and it has made Dutch society quite aware of Ukraine and what's going on there today.

The anti-EU sentiment of the "No" voters could have been countered by strong public support of Ukraine's efforts to preserve its independence and do away with its Soviet legacy. But it wasn't. Mustafa Nayyem, a pro-European Ukrainian legislator elected on Poroshenko's party ticket in 2014, called the referendum result "a personal indictment of Petro Poroshenko":

"This is a an indictment of a president who, despite having full powers, for two years systematically and persistently chose the past over the future; who, despite people's screams and his own declared slogans, picked the 'elite' and the oligarchs as his partners, not the civil society and the new generation."

Though the increasingly unpopular Poroshenko himself has dismissed the referendum as "strategically not an obstacle on Ukraine's path to Europe," it may well be one of the final blows to his ability to hold on to power. Even his erstwhile allies such as Nayyem are rebelling openly. The recent revelation, in the Panama Papers, that Poroshenko had been readying his confectionery business, Roshen, for sale through a tax-free offshore structure, has not helped the oligarch-turned-politician. Nor has a freeze on Ukraine's bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, caused by IMF officials' distrust of Kiev's commitment to reforms.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says the government will respect the referendum result. That will mean weeks, possibly months of working out the Dutch official position vis-a-vis Ukraine's EU association, which may have no practical bearing on the agreement's implementation. Still, for Ukraine this is an important message at a critical time. Political upheavals are coming, with the "new generation" of pro-Western activists and political novices seeking to rid the country entirely of the pre-revolutionary elite. More unrest, of course, will hardly improve Ukraine's image in Europe, where it is seen -- correctly -- as a weak and thoroughly corrupt state that keeps begging for every kind of help but does little to help itself.

Poroshenko and his team have only themselves to blame for wasting the best two-year window Ukraine has ever had to prove that its European aspirations and its adherence to European values are for real. In spectacular fashion, they have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

It'll be a long, grim slog for their successors to win Europeans' trust with cleaner politics and more decisive action.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net