By Konstantin Kirilov
— On Wednesday, April 6, citizens of the Netherlands are voting in a national referendum on the approval of Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. The decision to hold the poll was confirmed in late October 2015, after the Kiesraad (Dutch Election Council) received more than 427,000 valid signatures in support of it, far above the required minimum of 300,000.
The proposed agreement would include Ukraine, The European Union, its 28 member states, as well as EURATOM, the EU’s Atomic Energy Committee. It incorporates provisions for increased cooperation between all parties in political, social, military, and economic matters, including access to investment funds, as well as potential visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens.
The initial attempt at gathering the required signatures was organised by GeenPeil, a combined effort between the GeenStijl web blog, Burgercomité EU, and the eurosceptic think-tank Forum voor Democratie. Despite serious objections to the manner of signature collection – mostly online, through the blog itself – the count was reached in six weeks, in no small part due to the support of several Dutch political parties. These included Geert Wilders’ PVV, the Socialist Party (SP), the pensioners’ interests party 50PLUS, as well as the animal rights party Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD).
GeenStijl is no stranger to controversy itself, having been involved in several scandals since its establishment in 2003, including a famous hoax attempt to unseat the second cabinet of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende in the spring of 2005. For the last decade its ownership has been split between the original founders Dominique Weesie and Ambroos Wiegers (60%), and De Telegraaf Media Group (40%), considered a populist media outlet.
While the referendum is non-binding, and large parts of the agreement have been implemented since the end of 2014, a “No” vote could influence not only the upcoming UK poll on EU association, but also next year’s general elections in the Netherlands. If the Union decides to ignore the results, many fear it would only add to the idea of an insurmountable ‘gap’ between the elected leaders and their constituents. Furthermore, the topic has taken on a particularly emotional note after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
For the purposes of this article, The Herring created an online poll with the additional option to leave comments. The results seem to suggest that while a majority of AUC students would support a “Yes” vote, the referendum remains divisive, and many struggle to understand the exact issues behind it. Nearly 70% of those who participated in the poll said they would either vote “Yes”, or are leaning heavily towards a “Yes”. Just over 11% said they would vote against the proposal, with similar numbers saying they would either skip the poll altogether, or have yet to make up their mind.
Second-year humanities student Avraham Osipov-Gipsh believes the agreement will help Ukrainian civil society by putting the state under certain obligations. “It will have to continue its work on improving the situation with human rights, freedom of speech and media, protection of minorities, open-data projects […] all reforms that the state opposes mainly for the sake of corruption,” he added. Osipov-Gipsh also thought a “No” vote would mean a big victory for Vladimir Putin and “his strategy of keeping Ukraine in a constantly undermined situation.”
Thom Kunkeler, a third-year social sciences major, shared some of these sentiments. “Ukraine has shown to be willing to commit to EU trade policies, thereby distancing themselves from corruption at higher levels,” he said, adding that being a eurosceptic is one thing, “but denying a country that wants to democratize its economy just by distrusting Brussels and/or Ukraine is nonsensical.”
Still others were not so enthusiastic, pointing out that the referendum is closer to a hijacking of the democratic process than an exercise in actual democracy, as stipulated by many Dutch politicians, including PM Rutte himself. Joris Alberdingk Thijm, a third-year social sciences major, explained that he believes the agreement will benefit Ukrainian oligarchs rather than the ordinary citizens, in large part due to deindustrialization of the economy and a shift towards agriculture. “The treaty will be unilaterally imposed on Ukraine without them getting a proper seat in the EU institutions,” he added, voicing his fears that the state is becoming a US satellite “dominated by ultra-nationalism and other extreme right-wing ideologies.”
Amsterdam University College alumnus Chris de Ploeg, who has published a book on the subject called “Ukraine In The Crossfire”, is fully in support of a “No” vote, believing the country is yet to present any sort of real democratic alternative. According to him, the association agreement is “in fact an ersatz, a bad substitute for [EU] membership […] Ukraine is forced to adopt vast amounts of European legislation, without receiving any representation in the lawmaking bodies,” he explained. This comes on top of fears that the country is sliding into an era of economic depression and repressive policies, both on a local and national level.
Many of the respondents to The Herring’s online poll chose to leave an anonymous comment, highlighting the divisive nature of the issue within Dutch society. Some were positive towards the referendum, describing it as something that would “give hope to the people of Ukraine for prosperity, but also bring them closer to democracy the way we understand it.” One student said they would vote “Yes” simply to “piss off Putin”, even though they thought the referendum to be “centered on very limited political cooperation in the fields of terrorism and fighting corruption … issues that I do not mind supporting.”
A majority of the comments were negative, however, with some highlighting the subtle ways in which legislation is sometimes voted on in the European Union, and describing the referendum as “EU propaganda”. A first-year science major, who preferred to remain anonymous, described it as something that “shouldn’t have been there in the first place […] the agreement is not even the issue here, this was just some ignorant people’s way of saying they don’t want decisions to be made for them by the EU.”
Another respondent said they would not vote because that would be “implicit support for this blatant display of senseless buffoonery […] democracy only works if people think before they vote, and those that vote ‘against’ only seem to justify it through emotion, or gut-feeling.” A number of responses also mentioned the estimated cost of the poll (around €42 million in taxpayer money), calling it “a very bad joke.”
Voting on the proposed agreement will take place all throughout the day in the Netherlands, its overseas territories, as well as Dutch embassies around the world. First results are expected later this evening, with the latest opinion polls showing a double-digit lead for a “No” vote, with a third of potential voters remaining undecided as of April 1st. For the referendum to be valid, a turnout of at least 30% of all eligible voters is required, of which a simple majority (over 50%) will define the final outcome.
Update: The Netherlands Election Board released official results early on April 7, showing that turnout was 32.2% (4,134,339 voters out of a possible 12,839,562). The agreement was overwhelmingly rejected, with 61.59% voting against it, and 38.41% voting for.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that these results would probably require a new look at the proposal, and since voter turnout was over 30%, then “the ratification simply can’t go ahead“. Diederik Samsom, leader of the Labour Party and Rutte’s coalition partner, confirmed this, saying his group “can’t ratify the treaty in this fashion”.