Low Turnout Gives Euroscepticism a Victory in Dutch Vote on Ukraine

Dutch voters cast their ballots against ratifying a European Union trade deal with Ukraine.


Eurosceptics in the Netherlands narrowly defeated a referendum Wednesday on the fate of a European Union pact with Ukraine, a major blow to the sitting Dutch government, Brussels, and Kiev.

The vote was widely seen as a test of anti-EU sentiment in the Netherlands and across Europe. At least 30 percent of eligible Dutch voters needed to turn out for the referendum to be valid; the final results show that 32.1 percent cast ballots. But their decision was clear: 61 percent voted against the pact with Ukraine, compared with 37 percent who supported it.

Exactly what will happen to the pact is unclear, but the results will almost certainly fray economic and political ties between the European Union and Ukraine.

The Netherlands’ “no” vote puts the EU’s 2-year-old trade pact with Kiev in jeopardy. It was signed following 2014 protests that ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Opponents of the trade agreement argue its goal is to bring Ukraine into the EU, and that the economic bloc should not be working with leaders in Kiev due to widespread corruption in Ukraine. Supporters of the deal deny it is about future membership, and say closer ties are needed to help Kiev’s young government improve human rights and fight corruption.

“It’s about solidarity with a country which wants to develop itself,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after voting.

The Dutch cabinet could use the nonbinding referendum results to ask the EU to reopen negotiations with Ukraine and change the treaty, but it could also cause the ruling coalition in the Hague to collapse. Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy said it would ignore a “no” vote, while the Labour Party, its junior coalition partner, said it would observe it, setting the stage for a split in parliament. The prime minister is unpopular due to his handling of the refugee crisis and refusing to recognize that the referendum could put him under further pressure before national elections scheduled by March 2017.

The vote was organized by the right-wing Dutch newsblog GeenStijl, known for its anti-EU views, which collected more than the 400,000 signatures needed to force the balloting. Officially, the referendum sought to decide whether to bring Ukraine closer to the EU.

Yet some saw it as a proxy vote on the wider issue of how the EU is being managed. This view was acknowledged by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, who warned in January that a vote against the treaty “could open the doors to a continental crisis.”

One of the “no” campaign’s most vocal supporters was populist anti-Islamic lawmaker Geert Wilders, who argued the referendum was about Dutch voters having a larger say on policies related to EU expansion, legislation, and aid packages.

“I think many Dutchmen are fed up with more European Union,” Wilders told reporters after casting his ballot. He said the agreement with Ukraine was “not in the interests of the Dutch people.”

The vote in the Netherlands comes before a referendum scheduled for June in Britain about whether the United Kingdom will leave the EU. “So it could be today that it is the start of the end of the European Union as we know it today, and that would be very good,” Wilders said.

The Netherlands remains the only country in the 28-member EU that has not ratified the agreement with Ukraine. Although the deal was approved by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament, its ratification was put on hold until after Wednesday’s referendum.

Before the vote, the “yes” camp argued that rejecting the treaty with Ukraine would be a major symbolic victory for Moscow. Russia is likely to see the referendum results favorably. The association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine spurred the Maidan protests in 2013 that forced the Kremlin-friendly Yanukovych to flee to Russia, followed by the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Speaking to reporters before the vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov pushed back against suggestions that Moscow aimed to sway the referendum.

“The tendency to look for Moscow’s hand can only draw a smile of slight disappointment,” Peskov said.

Photo credit: REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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