By Bregje Smits
On April 6, people in the Netherlands voted in a referendum concerning the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine.The agreement is focused on improving the trade relationship between the EU and Ukraine and making the eastern border of the EU more stable. The EU would also agree to work with Ukraine to improve security, democracy, and economy. On April 12, the votes were counted and the final results came in. De Kiesraad, the Dutch Electoral Council, released the information that 32.38 percent of the Dutch population voted and 61 percent of voters opposed the agreement. This means the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) and the Senate (Eerste Kamer) will have the final say on either accepting or declining the agreement with Ukraine.
The Netherlands has not yet ratified the document officially, but the Dutch parliament had already accepted the EU agreement prior to the referendum. The result of the Dutch vote is not binding, so the question now is whether the parliament will defer to the people. Perhaps a better solution, though, would be for the Dutch to listen to the advice of the parliament and agree to work together with democratic European countries. As a country focused on trade, the Netherlands should consider the benefits of this agreement, rather than focusing on the potential “negative” outcome in the eyes of many Dutch: Ukraine joining the EU.
Simon Smits, Dutch Ambassador to the United Kingdom, said: “Now that the majority voted against the agreement, the ministry will have to take these results in consideration and deeply discuss this internally before meeting with the House of Representatives. After that, EU colleagues and Ukraine will be involved to find a fitting and satisfying solution for all partners.”
Bert Koenders of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a letter to the Tweede Kamer that in September an evaluation of the referendum results would be sent out to the legislative body.
Smits adds: “What became clear is that the agreement cannot be ratified now as if nothing happened. So, after April 12, this complicated process will have to be carefully carried out, which will rather take months than days.”
The organization GeenPeil was the driving force behind the referendum. The group collected over 300,000 signatures to get a referendum, and to get as many people as possible to vote. The GeenPeil organization mentioned voting in favor of the agreement would not be good for Dutch democracy, arguing that it would take away the people’s say in policies of their own country and in those of Europe.
One argument in favor of the agreement is that the trade between the Netherlands and Ukraine will increase. Ukrainian agriculture serves about 45 million people now, and has many investment opportunities for Dutch companies. The Netherlands’ exports to Ukraine are worth about 800 million euro. The association agreement will help Ukraine modernize its economy, and its trade regulations will have to be changed or modified to meet the standards of the EU.
Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, has argued that the agreement could boost not only his country’s trade, but also Ukraine’s economy. In an interview with the Dutch paper Metro, Rutte explains, “If there were one country that could benefit from this, it would be our trading nation. We would earn about 30 percent of our money abroad, which would mean more available jobs in our country. As of now there are 250 Dutch companies active in Ukraine, but there are many more opportunities we should not let pass by.”
The agreement could also help Ukraine develop more democratic institutions, curb corruption, increase human rights protections, and become more Western-oriented. This could increase the stability of the country and the eastern borders of the EU. While membership in the EU is not quite on the horizon yet—at least, the Netherlands opposes it—Ukraine’s location on the edge of Europe gives European countries an interest in its future.
“No” voters in the Netherlands think too much tax money will be going to Ukraine and the agreement will go against trade deals with Russia, most likely heightening tensions with President Putin. Those against the agreement also say the Netherlands shouldn’t get involved with a corrupt country that is currently in a state of war. They consider this agreement to be a step toward EU membership for Ukraine—a development they oppose.
An article by Maarten van Tartwijk published in The Wall Street Journal suggests that the referendum could further destabilize in Europe, especially due to the flow of migrants and rising “euroskeptism.” As Rutte said, “in the unstable world of today, with, for example, the flow of migrants and terrorism, also in the Netherlands we care for stability. Thus, the agreement would not only be good for Ukraine, but also for us.”
Rutte will meet with his colleagues from the other 27 countries in the EU at the end of June, so until then no final decision on the agreement will be reached. Ultimately, the prime minister will choose what he thinks is best for country and for the EU. Looking at the positive aspects of the agreement, the Dutch should value the boost in trade, the assistance it can provide Ukraine, and potential improvements in human rights. Now the waiting has begun; the Dutch people will have to wait patiently to hear the government’s final decision.
Bregje Smits is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
Photo courtesy of [Wikimedia Commons]