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Ukraine and the Dutch referendum

Ukraine and the Dutch referendum
Article by: Vitaliy Portnikov
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

Even if the Dutch parliament decides to review the ratification procedure for the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement after the recent referendum, it would not affect the agreement’s timetable.

A cartoon with the statement “If you are voting against, find Ukraine on the map” was extremely popular in Dutch media and Ukrainian social networks the day the referendum was held.  The authors of this cartoon wanted to express one simple thing — that those who vote “against” the association have no understanding of the real issue. And they did not even feel that there was an obvious logical inconsistency in that position: if a person does not even know where this mysterious Ukraine is on a map, why should he vote for an association with it?

And yet it was this very ideology that was the main issue for the referendum organizers. They wanted to prove to their fellow citizens that the European Union makes decisions that have nothing to do with the national interests of the Dutch people and that the Dutch government obediently gives its stamp of approval for these useless decision, while no one asks the Dutch people themselves.

But now that the new legislation has been adopted that allows citizens to hold a referendum on any law that has already been passed, a reliable barrier has been erected for the European bureaucracy.

By the way, there are also many supporters of “direct” democracy among Ukrainians who are confident that people voting in a referendum will make much wiser decisions than some parliamentarians who think only of themselves. Well, we can see how this “direct” democracy is working for the Dutch.

The Association Agreement with Ukraine was the first parliamentary decision that was put to a referendum. And the decision was not at all accidental. Discussions on the enlargement of the European Union have long been the Achilles heel of the union. A number of the successful north European states dislike spending money on the European south.

Already EU membership for Bulgaria or Romania has generated rather pessimistic commentary in the media of countries such as the Netherlands. Discussions regarding the participation of these countries in the Schengen (visa-free) regime and access by their citizens to the free labor market after joining the European Union have stretched over many years.

The Association Agreement with Ukraine allowed Dutch Eurosceptics to demonstrate to their fellow citizens that the European Union plans to continue to expanding eastward and that no one is asking the Dutch for their opinion. Few in the Netherlands understood that the Association Agreement is not membership but simply a document that regulates the relationship between the EU and one of the bordering countries while creating the necessary conditions for economic and political cooperation. By the way, this is not very clear to ordinary Ukrainian citizens either, and when they hear statements that Ukraine’s full membership in the EU will not be possible for many decades, they are offended.

However, despite all the manipulations around the issue it is possible to say that the Association Agreement really is a document that offers the prospect of EU membership in the future while bringing Ukraine closer to EU standards. And if there is no agreement there will be no standards. And if the Dutch do not want further enlargement of the EU, why should they express any opinion on the standards.

If one pays attention to what is said and written by the winners of the referendum then the main idea expressed is “we showed” Brussels and The Hague. Therefore, they “showed” the European bureaucrats and their own politicians. This is precisely why the results of the referendum have no relation to our country and do not create any problems for it. It is primarily a problem for European and Dutch politics.

Anyone who claims that the Dutch voted the way they did because we have not carried out reforms and because we have the “wrong government” is the same kind of irresponsible and shameless populist as the Dutch populists who decided to take advantage of the Association Agreement for their own purposes. Because the opposite is true: it is Ukraine itself and not its government that the “no” voters do not want to see in the European Union. And the more reforms we could have carried out, and the closer we could have come to the possibility of applying for membership, the greater would have been the resistance of the Eurosceptics, I can assure you of that. And this is also one of the problems of the European Union.

For the Dutch we are simply too far — both geographically and civilizationally — for the ordinary Dutch resident to understand why he needs our participation in the European Union. Moreover, as recently as two years ago — until Russia attacked us — this average resident considered us to be Russia, and for many of them that is what we have remained. The inertia associated with this perception is something we will need to fight against for years.

The Association Agreement with the EU will continue to function as before. This document is a multilateral agreement between the EU and Ukraine, and even if the Dutch parliament decides to review the ratification procedure after the referendum, it will have no effect on the timeline of the agreement. This is because the agreement is functioning under the “temporary fulfillment” system. In order to cancel this mode of operation, the other EU member countries would need to agree. And even if one of the countries objects, no change will take  place. Moreover, no one in Brussels is even thinking of that option.

The EU’s main objective today is simply proving its ability to negotiate. Because if we imagine that a referendum held in one of the countries can put in doubt EU’s ability to negotiate, then the EU might as well be dissolved. This is a more serious challenge even than the matter of the European Constitution, which, incidentally, was also rejected in a referendum held by the Dutch and the French. This is because the Constitution was an internal EU document and the Association Agreement is an international one.

By the way, what happened after the rejection of the Constitution? The Europeans signed the Lisbon Treaty, which was largely a remake, because without the changes to the law on  EU functioning it would have simply been impossible to proceed. Now the Europeans have some room to maneuver as well. They can attempt to make several changes to the  Association Agreement so that the Dutch parliament can ratify it again with a “clear conscience.” But, at the same time, it is necessary to understand what it was exactly that did not suit the opponents of the agreement. And this will be impossible because, again, it is the agreement itself they did not want.

The agreement could also be saved by determining Dutch non-participation in certain specific areas — again, Dutch politicians will have to decide which ones. And this is a real problem for the European and Dutch politicians. Because they all understand perfectly well that the referendum and its results are pure populism, but they will have to give the appearance of respecting public opinion. Therefore, one example of pure cynicism will touch upon another.

Numerous hearings, discussions and parliamentary meetings will be held in the Netherlands now in order to “understand the people,” while the agreement itself, which has already been ratified, will continue to function as before. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, summing up the unfortunate referendum, has called for a search for a new solution in careful consultation with the EU and the Dutch parliament and admitted that all this could take “several weeks.”

I would guess — even more. The European Union is unlikely to want any clear decision before the British referendum on EU membership. Because if it appeared that the Dutch voted against the Association Agreement and it still continued to function, it would provide another argument for the British Eurosceptics. It is no wonder that the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, greeted the results of the referendum with such enthusiasm.

No, Brussels will need something else — to show that residents of the EU can freely express their views on the functioning of the union itself, as in Holland. This is why before the British referendum is held, Brussels and The Hague will attempt to continue fruitful discussions on the future format of the Association Agreement and the Dutch participation in it.

A realistic exit from the situation will begin to be worked out after the British referendum and will defend primarily on its results. If the British vote for maintaining the EU, there will be few difficulties in finding a solution. But the precedent of the exit of one of the EU member states could provide a powerful impetus for Eurosceptic moods on the continent and simultaneously strengthen the decentralizing sentiments in the United Kingdom itself. It appears that the future of the EU association with Ukraine will be decided against the background of these very dangerous trends. In short, it will be a very different European Union.

Yes, once again the future of Ukraine will depend not even on grand politics but on the grand sweep of history.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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