Ukraine-EU Association Agreement endangered by Dutch referendum

A Ukraine-EU flag seen during Ukraine's Euromaidan protests. Photo: Reuters 

International, Politics

Article by: Anastasiia Chornohorska

It was the delay of the Association agreement with the EU by ex-president Yanukovych in November 2013 that triggered the Euromaidan Revolution. Two years later, a referendum scheduled to take place in the Netherlands could put Ukraine’s eurointegration prospects at stake once again.

All 28 EU countries have ratified the association agreement; 23 of them have completed the whole procedure of ratification, including the Netherlands, which ratified the agreement on July 2015. However, the procedure of ratification has been paused  until an advisory referendum about the association agreement will be held in the country on April 6, 2016.

Read more: EU-Ukraine Association Agreement supported by 87% of MPs | Interactive map

Who is holding the referendum

The campaign to have a consultative referendum was started by the controversial satirical blog GreenStijl, which was launched by the GeenPeil group, Burgercomite EU activists group, and eurosceptical think tank Forum voor Democratie. This idea was also supported by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as an example of democracy. The campaign lasted during six weeks at the website. The referendum’s organizers collected 451 663 signatures in total, after which the Election Council of Netherlands announced that it would take place.

Jan Roos, the campaign leader for GeenPeil, at a press conference. Photo: ANP

Jan Roos, the campaign leader for GeenPeil, at a press conference. Photo: ANP

What consequences will the referendum have

According to unofficial information from Dutch political sources, public opinion studies show that 45% of citizens are ready to participate in the referendum. Moreover, 56% of them are going to say “No” to the ratification of the association agreement with Ukraine.

It will have an advisory, meaning that its decision is not mandatory. But in case 30% of Dutch citizens show up at the referendum, and at least 50% of them vote “No,” the Parliament will be forced to review the association agreement. There are indicators that there might be a parliamentary majority that would vote against the Association agreement in the second vote – the Dutch Labor Party PvdA and Christian-Democratic Appeal CDA have announced that they will respect the outcome of the referendum. There is so far no guarantee that the outcome of the referendum will have no consequences.

Voting is “not about Ukraine” but about Euroscepticism

The referendum originated from “a strange combination of right-wing politicians and socialists, who happen to share the hesitations against the growing influence of Europe,” according to Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies Robert van Voren. According to him, most Dutch citizens know little if anything about Ukraine.

Moreover, they don’t have good reasons for supporting the Association agreement.

Information campaigns around EU Association agreements have traditionally focused on communicating benefits of EU integration to the countries that were going to be integrating. But the EU has rarely communicated the benefits of its expansion to existing EU states. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for sceptical attitudes shown by EU countries to association agreements with other countries. In this particular case Dutch citizens just do not see what they will win from the ratification of the association agreement with Ukraine. Moreover, opponents of the agreement say that they do not want to see Ukraine in EU, naming corruption, the necessity to prove commitment to European values among the first reasons.

This is the first misperception – the Association agreement ratification does not give any guarantees to Ukraine joining the EU. What it does provide is wide opportunities for cooperation, namely in the economical sphere. For example, it will be easier for Dutch traders to reach the Ukrainian market, and easier for Ukraine to export goods into the Netherlands. Dutch entrepreneurs will have more possibilities to work in Ukraine.

Read also: With Dutch referendum, Ukraine becomes a tool of populist politics

Public opinion of Ukraine in the Netherlands doesn’t play into Ukraine’s favor

A recent public opinion poll carried out by the Ukrainian Institute of World Policy gave some insight into the ease of gathering the 450 000 signatures necessary for initiating the referendum: out of the eight EU countries that were included into the poll, the Netherlands were the most sceptical about Ukraine’s European prospects and knew the least about Ukraine, mainly associating it with the MH17 catastrophe, Russia, and poverty. Almost 47% of Dutch citizens could not give an answer as to why Ukraine should join the EU in the future. Also they are not too enthusiastic about visa liberalization with Ukraine.

Local activists are trying to turn the tide

To motivate Dutch citizens to say ‘Yes’ at the referendum, Ukraine needs a strong voice of support in Netherlands, namely a wide information campaign explaining what the agreement is and how would the Dutch people benefit from it. One of the voices of support is the Ukrainian diaspora in Netherlands, whose active representatives already do a lot to support their native country, as well as Dutch activists who support Ukraine.

One of the first steps in this direction has been made by a group of activists who created a website dedicated to the referendum, which already has a significant amount of views due to local media coverage. It gives information about the benefits of association agreement with Ukraine for Netherlands as well as about Ukraine and changes that are taking place there.

Snapshot of the website dedicated to the referendum

“Eurosceptics try to explain that this referendum is about the European Union and not about Ukraine. We try to stress that it actually is about Ukraine and about economic cooperation with the country, and not only Ukraine needs the association agreement, but Netherlands can benefit from it as well,” said Ukrainian activist Oleksandr Snidalov, who is one of the creators of the website and informational campaign. Speaking on air of Hromadske TV, he said that the Ukrainian leadership underestimates the danger that the referendum carries for the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.


Support of local activists and media is crucial but not enough to reach the results. According to Oleksandr Snidalov, they have plans to cooperate with political parties with a pro-Ukrainian position. Political parties have more possibilities to influence the situation. Since Ukrainian activists are facing the populist positions of some political forces in the Netherlands, support of pro-Ukrainian parties would help to balance this competition. For example, the Democraten 66 party, which is among the authors of the law about the referendum, supports the Ukrainian position and will be launching a Yes-campaign.

Another kind of support that Ukrainian activists are looking for is help in preparing information materials about the benefits of the association agreement for Netherlands, which are crucial for attracting public attention and making an impact.

The recent days brought one more challenge for Ukrainian activists in Netherlands. Paintings of Dutch artists stolen over 11 years ago from the West Frisland Museum in Netherlands were found in Ukraine. This information was widely spread in Dutch media. Representatives of the Museum say that those paintings are under control of a volunteer battalion in the East of Ukraine. Also, according to them, the battalion’s commander Borys Humeniuk demanded EUR 50 mn to return the paintings. Not only does he deny this fact, but also the battalion has stated that Mr.Humeniuk is no longer associated with them. Ukrainian authorities started the investigation, but altogether this incident is a great PR-catastrophe for Ukraine prior to the referendum. The only thing that will convince the Netherlands that Ukraine is worth the association agreement is a transparent investigation and resolution of the situation. As well as not being silent, of course.

Internal factors of Dutch politics place Ukraine’s long-term development at stake 

One of the organizers of the referendum, Thierry Baudet, the head of the Forum voor Democratie, explains his position by the fact that European leaders were not given a mandate to support Ukraine’s ambitions of eurointegration, and that the money of Dutchtaxpayers should be used for this purpose. Thierry Baudet’s consistent eurosceptical position goes back for ages. He is not supported by the Kremlin. The head of the Forum voor Democratie stresses that this referendum is the only way to show their euroscepticism.However, what for a European country is just a way of “playing democracy” for Ukraine is an important factor of internal politics that would determine its development in the long-term future.

To describe the whole picture of the Dutch referendum, the parliamentary elections that will take place in the Netherlands next year have to be taken into account. Representatives of political parties from the governing coalition have already stated that during the re-examination of the association agreement they would vote the similar way as most of the citizens would have done. As mentioned above, Prime Minister Mark Rutte supported the idea of the referendum. Although his position is to support Ukraine, his opinion can also be called a part of political game. Political parties will want to win political bonuses for the future elections by following public opinion, meaning that Ukraine’s future can again become a hostage of big political games.

Poroshenko’s messages in the Netherlands

At the end of November Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had his first official visit to Netherlands. The most of the local media were not active in highlighting the visit. The only strong voice describing the visit was of those who are against the ratification of the association agreement. They reviewed every detail of Poroshenko’s visit, paying attention at every error or problem during it.

However, some of his statements during his lecture in Leiden University are good examples of explaining why Netherlands should support Ukraine on its way to the association agreement.

Among them is the fact that Ukraine already gives great opportunities to Dutch entrepreneurs for their business and Netherlands already are among the biggest trade partners for Ukraine. At the same time, the potential for further cooperation is still huge. Petro Poroshenko also stressed that there is no civil war in Ukraine. The country is suffering from Russian invasion and it is a danger not only for Ukraine, but for the whole Europe. This argument has to have strong influence in Netherlands, country whose aircraft was downed from Russian weapons and whose citizens died due to the fault of Russian militants. Especially, taking into account the fact that official position of Dutch authorities on who downed the aircraft is very similar to Ukraine`s official position. At the moment, Dutch citizens are roughly split as to whether the war in Ukraine is a civil war or an act of Russian aggression.

At the same time, Poroshenko’s labeling of  euroscepticists as “eurocowards” is hardly a successful move. This could garner a negative reaction from their side and mobilize them to stand for their position even more actively. 

For now, it seems too optimistic to say that the Dutch referendum has no threat to European ambitions of Ukraine. However, Petro Poroshenko during his visit to Netherlands voiced his confidence that “Ukraine will win the referendum.” Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin expressed the same opinion. He stresses that the referendum has no mandatory juridical power, which is why it would not influence the ratification process.

So, perhaps Ukrainian authorities should pay more attention to public moods in the Netherlands and take into account the referendum’s real importance. A strong information campaign among local people in Netherlands supported at the high level, as well as diplomatic influence at Dutch senior officials, is needed more than ever. 

If the voice of Ukrainian people could sound in Netherlands, a good message would be:

“Supporting Ukraine’s path of eurointegration not only supports Ukraine’s struggle for a better future, it is in your interests too. In today’s world full of threats, all European countries have to unite in their intentions to build a safe and thriving world.”

Edited by: Alya Shandra

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  1. Avatar Patrick says:

    Right from the start I warned that the outcome of this referendum in my country would deliver a “no”.

    It will deliver a “no” because the mood amongst many of my compatriots has turned destructive.

    It has turned destructive because many dutch people have for year been very very angry on the EU because it is seen a undemocratic, an open gate for refugees and a thread to dutch sovereignty, the Euro which in their eyes only costed them money, eastern european workers who could easily enter the dutch labour market “stealing” jobs of dutch people in construction and transport, they are angry on their political elites who gave them the multi-cultural society with which many still don’t feel at ease.
    In short they are very angry and frustrated and they will say “no” to basically everything their rulers or Europa askes from them.
    So this will not be a “no” against Ukraine as most dutch people know nothing about Ukraine. This will predominantly be a “no” because many people fear that the whole EU-Ukraine “thing” is just a nice play for the ruling elites for which ordinary people can pay the price.
    As a dutch person I feel ashamed for the way of thinking of my compatriots. I think it is short-sighted, selfish and destructive but I belong to the minority.
    Still there is hope for Ukraine because it is just an advisory referendum. Like with the referendum about the european constitution in 2006, dutch politicians could decide to ignore the outcome of the referendum. In case they again think that the majority voted against for 1001 reasons having nothing to do with the question asked, they could decide to ignore the outcome as the voters themselves apparently abused the referendum for something it was not intended for. And in my eyes the politicians are right then.

    1. Avatar Calibra says:

      Just to bad a majority of political parties have already stated that they will respect the outcome of the referendum if it’s valid.

      So the referendum is no longer a advisory referendum because the PVDA, CDA, SP and PVV have already stated that they will follow the outcome and they hold a firm majority in the lower and upper chambers, so the government can no longer ignore the outcome.

      As for the article, do not underestimate the Dutch.

      “For example, it will be easier for Dutch traders to reach the Ukrainian market, and easier for Ukraine to export goods into The Netherlands. Dutch entrepreneurs will have more possibilities to work in Ukraine.”

      We do understand that, but we also do understand that these things do not outweigh the negative effects like an increase in criminal activity coming from Ukraine if they get visa free travel, we have heard all these arguments before and every time a former sovjet satellite state joined the crime rates rises and we are at a point that we are fed up with it.

      1. Avatar miguel says:

        Calibra, to that I say cut off ties to Moscow.
        You have pretty much done that already with sanctions.

        Have your elites reject the Moscow influence, and the organized crime that is based out of there and that is prevalent in Eastern European breakaway republics will have encouragement to change their ways.
        They are trying to break away from the corruption is Moscow.
        A nations that if it has control of Europe financially and with resources, can affect the decisions you make.
        The people of Ukraine can be more of a positive influence and market, as long as they do not have to worry about polonium tea.
        They are choosing you, Europe, to be more like and to sell to.
        Moscow seeks to dominate Europe, subtly, but from what we have seen from events, it holds a dominating force.

        BUT while your political parties and others seek allies, donations, as well as partnerships with Moscow, it gives Moscow criminals a chance to influence those groups that are trying to break away.

        Yes, there is a transition period where many of the corrupt groups of businessmen as well as criminals that have been trained and allowed to proliferate through Soviet Law will try to get lost in the masses and with there free visas try to go back to Europe and set up shop.
        Arrest them, deport them make them feel unwanted.
        It is a challenge, yes.

        Moscow played the game after the Wall fell, and infiltrated Europe with its money to buy influence.
        In a way that was good, it works both ways and it gave hope for those of Eastern Europe to breakaway after seeing and hearing European media and values.
        And they sought to distance themselves from corruption.
        Is Poland perfect? not yet.
        But it turned into a beneficial partner after ten years or so of the changes and waves that were created settled.

        I, and my opinion may be wrong, think Europe instead of being in control of its territory and controlling, leaped over the Eastern Europen countries to work directly with the fast game and the most money that came from Moscow that was centrally located instead of dealing with the other nations that had as much money combined because it was easier to deal with one nation then ten (+/-)

        We saw how Moscow treated you for that alliance.
        They threatened to turn off gas in the wintertime.
        They flew bombers over the English Channel and began to arm them.
        They sent polonium which could have killed millions.
        They saber rattled nuclear blackmail as well as energy blackmail.
        Their agents crossed into Estonia, kidnapped a person and drug them back to Moscow.

        They used there media to manipulate the facts about MH17.
        First it was Ukrainian military jet that was shot down by DNR rebels, then when the world knew it was a civilian airliner, they changed the story to the rebels deny shooting down MH17.

        Then Carlos, then SU25, then faked satellite images, then SU25 mechanic, then faked MH17 presentation, then saying you must deal with terrorists if you want to get the bodies and plane parts to examine, it could not be a BUK okay it is a BUK but we don’t have it inventory okay we have it in inventory but it never crossed into Ukraine okay it crossed into Ukraine but Ukraine had BUKs and there radars were working, then just before the DSB report came out their state run agency did a presser on how it could not be from the area the DSB believes it was shot from – in effect attempting to discredit the validity of the report itself.

        Moscow’s influence on the future of Europe vs Europe taking the ropes in their own hands and being director of their future is the ultimate decision.

        Do you want to be subservient to Moscow? Stand on equal footing? OR do you want to dictate the terms to Moscow?

        Moscow has shown it sticks up its middle finger to International Law and treaties it has made.
        In my mind, sanctions need to be made permanent and replace your missed resources and revenue with trade agreements with Ukraine.

        Ukraine has its own job to do as well, it has to end the dominant socialist policies its people value.

        Europe is allowing itself to move towards a socialist economy (Moscow influence primarily as well) and you have to take a real hard look at yourselves.
        You have seen how terrible conditions are for Ukraine right now, that is the effects of a Socialist economy.
        They want change and they need to start cutting back and being fiscally responsible.
        In the same way, Europe has to as well.
        Ukraine is wanting to be what you were, successful thriving full of working people.
        Europe’s tendencies are showing that it is seeking to become what Ukraine was 20 years ago without the corruption that became widespread in the last twenty years and avoid the corruption.
        You cannot do that, corruption follows over zealous socialist policies.
        A nation just can’t afford to be paying for taking care of societies citizens that figure they do not have to give anything back.
        Ukraine wants to give something back.

        It is your right to say no.
        Immigrants and getting them acclimatized and part of your society is always difficult.
        The problem as I see it, governments tell us it is easier to pay welfare to the lazies as opposed to sending them home.
        That does need to change, if the immigrants do not work, visa overstays, illegal immigrants need to be rounded up and sent back to their home countries.
        Criminals committing crimes need to be deported with their whole families to set an example for other immigrants that want to come.
        If a wife divorces her immigrant husband while he is in jail and then becomes welfare mom, send her back to the country of hubbies origin and she can wait for him there to get out.

        The unwillingness of deporting immigrants of the political and citizens (don’t want to break up a family and hurt innocent children) is a problem.
        The criminal did not care enough about his family so he committed the crimes, the wife that knew about the hubbies activities did not change his ways or stop him.
        Yes, it may seem cruel to the children and eliminate their chance to live in a free society.
        But that child can apply for a visa when they are older.

        It is cheaper to send them home then have them suck on your countries teat for years on end.
        Just need to establish that law, and then have the will to enforce it.

        America has its own fight with various immigration.
        Gangs of Central America send in drugs.
        They are part of the immigrant community.
        The Democrats refuse to enforce that laws and think breaking up a happy home trumps the betterment of society.
        Immigrants civil rights trump those of the citizens of the country.
        Conservatives can only say we told you so. and help to deal with the fallout of the immigration bomb and refusing to enforce laws.
        This is what you get for not enforcing the laws.

        BUT that was the will of the Dems and the citizens.
        Dems and socialists hate to admit someone else is right.

        If you do not want to enforce laws, then do not allow the immigrants in, that is your right to vote to do so.
        But by doing that to Ukraine you have cut off the resources Ukraine has.
        Natural resources like oil, gas, and the innovation of people that were the real ones behind the technological advances of the USSR.

        Ukraine has expressed a will to change from it was, and you seek to become what it was.
        Ukraine has made leaps and bounds reforming, but it still has a long way to go to search for its identity.
        You can contribute to it and influence it.

        I tend to think if you push away Ukraine, you may have the groups of Eastern European nations become their own Union.
        That will not be the best thing, but it is better then it is now.
        They will be a competitor to European Union instead of an ally.
        One that will play both sides of the fence and will become as corrupt as Moscow is now.
        It is easier for them to revert to Soviet life, then fight for progress when no one wants you.

        You both need some drastic change or you may as well today sign over the deed to your nation to Moscow now and get it over with.
        Over use of socialism activism needs to be nipped in the bud.

        Sorry for being drawn out, but felt these few subjects needed to be broached, I am not a political expert, but an outside observer.

        And maybe you and others of Europe, as well as Ukraine, need to see this opinion as well and debate some of these factors and look inward while looking outward and judging someone else.
        Maybe you will tell me I am full of it.
        Thank you for allowing me to express a few thoughts and opinions.