The "No" campaign participants at work. Image: nrc.nl
The Netherlands is preparing itself for a political novelty: on April 6, for the first time in history, a referendum will take place that has become obligatory, after more than 400,000 Dutchmen signed an online petition demanding the use of this novel democratic instrument. The subject: whether the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union should be valid or not. If the Dutch vote turns against it, the government is not automatically forced to reverse its decision to ratify the agreement. However, not doing so will create a deep political crisis, and thus the government is basically forced to respond to the vote in some credible form. In short: the Dutch will decide in less than two months whether Ukraine can forget about its European ambitions or whether there is a “European future”.
The Dutch government has decided to provide subsidy to those in favor or against, and also to neutral parties. One private individual submitted an application to develop toilet paper that points at the dangers of EU-membership by Ukraine, which is not even the issue of the referendum. Still, he managed to get almost 50,000 euro for this project. The organization that organized the collection of signatures that resulted in the referendum initially submitted two applications: one against, and one “neutral”. “Neutral” means a campaign to stimulate people to vote, either in favor or against. They withdrew their application in the end, and the big question is how “neutral” their neutral campaign would have been.
Equally doubtful is the neutrality of a new website that has been launched that claims to help citizens to make their choice. The website looks very solid and “neutral”, indeed very much like the official advisory website that is made available by the Dutch government during regular elections. However, the big question is: who is behind this one, and how neutral is it? Let’s have a closer look, and then you can decide whether this is a matter of providing objective information, or a clever concoction of suggestive questioning combined with equally suggestive answers.
From the very start, it is clear that the authors of the website have not been impressed by the massive nature of the uprising against the Yanukovych regime, which repeatedly brought up to a million people to the Maidan in Kyiv and resulted in dozens of Maidans in other cities, some of the largest actually being in cities in the East, e.g. Donetsk and Luhansk. They clearly see the hand of the West in all this, and as usual two liberal politicians from Belgium and The Netherlands are mentioned (which immediately casts doubt about the authors’ political background). They write: “Opinion polls show that [in November 2013] half of the population supported the Association Agreement, the other half wanted closer ties with Russia. The decision of the president [not to sign] led to an uprising that was actively supported by among others Verhofstadt and Van Baalen.”
They continue by claiming that the signing of the Association Agreement “led to new insurrections by those who were against the agreement – which escalated to the current war in which also America and Russia became involved.” Not a word about the existence of “titushki”, anti-Maidan demonstrators paid by the Yanukovych regime, or “little green men”, special forces sent in by Moscow to lead the take over of the Crimea and the East. In fact, the authors claim, this it is not just a war, and it is not a Russo-Ukrainian war: it is a civil war! “Signing the Association Agreement was the reason why a civil war erupted in Ukraine that cost more than 9,000 people their lives including 198 Dutchmen of MH17.” And who says so? Well, let’s look where to find a “solid” Westerner who can confirm this. Ah, we found one: “Various experts of international politics, among them Henry Kissinger, think the EU have not fully foreseen the geo-political implications of the signing of the Association Agreement” and immediately a link is added to statements by Kissinger (who, by the way, recently met Putin during a very friendly meeting).
So did Maidan bring anything good? That is very doubtful. “Is President Poroshenko a trustworthy political partner?” the website asks. The authors write: “Proponents of the treaty believe the country is in transition: from a corrupt semi-dictatorship ruled by untrustworthy oligarchs it is allegedly now moving towards a Western democratic state based on the rule of law. They key figure in this is said to be Petro Poroshenko, the new President of Ukraine…” And then they continue: “Critics state that he is still not choosing for “clean politics” and that opinion polls show that more than half of the Ukrainians have seen corruption increase rather than decrease in the two years that he is in power.” In other words: Poroshenko is not only corrupt, he even allowed corruption to flourish since Maidan. So he is actually even worse than Yanukovych!
The key question of the referendum is of course whether this is a steppingstone towards EU-membership for Ukraine. Sure, Ukrainian political leaders have repeatedly voiced the wish to join the EU, but that doesn’t say much. I also want to have a Ford Mustang, but I know I will never have because I can’t afford and on top of that it uses too much petrol. Actually it is clear that EU-membership for Ukraine is at this moment a fata morgana and will not be an issue for the next twenty years. But for the creators of this web-based “voting-advisor” things are much clearer: “Opponents say that on basis of this agreement Ukraine has to adopt 80% of the EU regulations – and thus in fact already becomes almost a member.”
This is nothing less than a highly manipulative statement, which has absolutely no truth base. But it is apparently not enough, so the authors sow a bit more doubt about the real intentions: “Opponents point at the way in which the EU has more often used the “salami tactics” and step by step has pushed through measures or maneuvers itself into a position in which it is almost impossible not to offer membership (like in the case of Turkey).” This assertion shows that the compilers of this “neutral” vote-advisor clearly have an anti-EU stance, and it is so strong they cannot hide it. In fact, their claim about Turkey is also based on nothing, because the Turkish chance to become a member of EU is smaller than ever.
Yet the tone of the music is set, and from here it takes off in a repetitive form: one argument after the other of the “no”-campaign is tabled, and the way of “discussing” is the same: the arguments of the “yes”-campaign are summarized, the “no”-campaign gets enough space to continue spreading doubt and thus pushing the doubting voter in the direction of voting against.
When we get to trade, the argument that the Agreement is beneficial for the Dutch economy is questioned. No mention is made of the fact that Ukraine is a huge market and a great opportunity for Dutch business. No, instead the argument is that “opponents point to the relatively small size of the Ukrainian economy, the poverty and the outdated industry there, and the negative consequences the treaty has for among others our trade with Russia (a partner that is at least ten times bigger than Ukraine).” To put it differently, instead of choosing to support a developing democracy, a country that is trying to escape from the strangling hold of post-totalitarianism and Putin’s expansionism, we should decline not support them but rather look at our own wallet. Beware, Dutch citizens, when we choose for Ukraine we loose the Russian market, so let’s be clever and just forget about human rights and democracy and earn money!
But things seem not to be that bad: the authors appear to be actually concerned about the wellbeing of the Ukrainians. At least, that is what they pretend: “for decades the Ukrainian industry was very dependent on Russia. (…) Because of the association agreement this economic “lifeline” has been cut. (…) Now the Ukrainian industry will have to depend completely on the competition with Western industries. (…) Many fear that this “cold shower” will be such a massive blow to the Ukrainian industry that it will not or hardly be able to recover from it.” So for humanitarian reasons we should vote against, because it is in the interest of Ukraine itself!
But then let’s not become softhearted. After all we are good Dutchmen, and we need to look at our own economic interests. So will we lose our jobs to cheap workers from the East? Well, not immediately, but Ukrainians will be able to “travel much more easily to Europe, and that the control of who enters our country will decrease enormously.” They are not Muslims, but still! And can we be sure our food will be sufficiently ecological and produced in the right way? In a wealthy country like The Netherlands this is of increasing concern, and rightly so, but it is also a handy argument against, because Ukrainian products of “bio-industry which has been forbidden in The Netherlands for many years will be found on the shelves of [our] supermarkets. According to MP Marianne Thieme (Party for Animals) this is enough reason to vote against the Agreement. Also read the interview with the Ukrainian Minister of Agriculture (…) in which he says that ‘wellbeing of animals is now no issue’ for Ukraine.” So you see, the Ukrainians themselves admit they torture animals before we eat them.
Finally, the authors touch upon the most painful issue for the Dutch when it comes to the war in Ukraine: the downing of the MH17 Malaysian airliner, killing almost 200 Dutch citizens on board. What does it have to do with this Association Agreement? Well, it is a perfect argument to make people even more anxious and hesitant and so we turn to the fact that the Dutch government was unable to get the Ukrainian radar images of the time of the downing: “Why doesn’t the Cabinet [of Ministers] want to have full transparency? Are they afraid of an overwhelming “no”-vote during the Referendum of April 6?” The insinuation is clear: Ukraine doesn’t give the radar images because they have something to hide. Maybe they shot down the plane themselves, who knows? And later on further doubt is created: “Reconstructions by journalists show that the Ukrainian side obstructs and lies.”
Finally, in case people think they don’t have the ability to decide whether this 2,000 page document with all its diplomatic and legalistic wording is good or not, the authors have their answer ready: don’t worry, also those who are in favor often don’t know what they are talking about: “Proponents of the referendum mention that a considerable number of politicians have indicated that they didn’t read the Agreement, and thus the assumed ‘expertise’ of our leaders is relative.” In other words, follow the advise of the vote-advisor, let your fears and anxieties (enhanced by the website, of course) speak, and you can be sure you vote “no”.
Long live populist democracy, the best way to destroy peace and security in Europe.