UPDATED: Dutch referendum torpedoes ratification of EU-Ukraine agreement

UPDATED: Dutch referendum torpedoes ratification of EU-Ukraine agreement
Dutch voters want to give EU-Ukraine association deal the chop.
By bne IntelliNews April 6, 2016

Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected the Ukraine-EU association agreement in a referendum held in the Netherlands on April 6, which while non-binding has forced the government to quickly backpeddle from plans to ratify the deal.

"This is not a result the Cabinet had expected," the authorities said after 61% of voters rejected ratification of the pact signed with Ukraine in 2014 to deepen its political and trade ties with the EU, against only 38% who supported it. "The final results will be declared on Tuesday, April 12, but it is clear already now that the agreement cannot be ratified at the moment."

Turnout in the consultative referendum was above the 30% level required for it to be recognised as valid, a statement said. "The opponents have obviously won," Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote on his Facebook page.

"If the results of the referendum remain unchanged, we will be unable to ratify the agreement of association with Ukraine," Rutte added, noting that the government will now consult about the results with parliament "and our European partners. This will take some time - rather weeks than days".

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed the treaty with the EU after his predecessor, the pro-Moscow leader Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign it. This triggered the Maidan protests in Kyiv and the ousting of Yanukovych and his government in February 2014, opening the way for a pro-Western leadership and new efforts to integrate with the EU.

The referendum was the result of a petition launched by GeenStijl, a Dutch newsblog known for its right-wing views and anti-EU stance that collected 400,000 signatures needed to force a vote.

"Not an obstacle"

The referendum is the first and only such vote in the EU on the ratification of the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The Netherlands is the last of 28 EU member states to consider its ratification, but the stance of its public can reinforce other tendencies to pull away from Brussels, such as support for a 'Brexit' secession in the UK.

Poroshenko said the referendum results won't impede his country's westward course.

"I want to stress that this referendum, in accordance with the constitution and the laws of the Netherlands, has only a consultative role and now it is for the government, parliament and Dutch politicians to decide. I am sure that strategically this event is not an obstacle to Ukraine's entry to Europe," Poroshenko's press service quoted him as saying.

The referendum's results do not affect the current implementation of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, including its Free Trade Area, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said, pledging that his government will continue to work with the EU within the framework of the existing bodies of this agreement.

"Ukraine's Euro-integration won't be stopped and we will move along this road," Interfax-Ukraine reported. The referendum reflects the attitude of Dutch citizens towards the European Union and the desire of Euroskeptics to undermine the EU's unity, the minister added.

In early March, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker poured cold water on Ukraine's EU aspirations, saying the country needs at least 20 years to join the bloc. Juncker added that some Dutch voters had misunderstood the EU-Ukraine association agreement as its first step towards EU membership.

Blow to reforms

Mustafa Nayyem, a lawmaker in Poroshenko's parliamentary faction, believes the referendum's outcome is "a sentence passed on Petro Poroshenko personally".

"Not the country, not the war [in East Ukraine], not the Dutch nation," Nayyem wrote on his Facebook page. "It is a sentence for the president of the country, who, while having all powers at his disposal, was making a consistent and systemic choice in favour of the past, despite having the option of the future, and who partnered with 'elites' and oligarchs, rather that civil society and the new generation, despite people's outcry and his own slogans."

Two days before the referendum was held, international media revealed Poroshenko's offshore business in leaked documents of the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. The revelations have triggered a wave of accusations against Poroshenko as he didn't include his offshore company Prime Asset Partners in his recent financial disclosures.

"This is nevertheless a bitter blow to the reform process in Ukraine," Timothy Ash at Nomura International wrote in a research note on April 7 as the outcome of the referendum became clear. "Reformers in Kyiv might well now find it that much more difficult to sell painful political and economic reforms to their own populations given that the Dutch have basically closed the door to them in terms of any European perspective, in the broadest of terms. The door has been closed, the draw bridge raised."