When I was asked to explain ‘what the Dutch have against Ukraine’ to an Estonian public, I initially wondered whether this is the right question to ask. On 6 April the Dutch voted against the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, but the turnout was only 32 percent. One could perhaps ask why the Dutch do not care about Ukraine. On the other hand, I know many people who are in favour of the agreement, but stayed at home. They either oppose referenda on principled grounds, or feel uncomfortable with the way this referendum came about. To make the question even more complicated, some leaders of the no-camp claim that they act in the best interest of both Dutch and Ukrainian ordinary citizens.
The idea to subject the ratification of the agreement to the newly introduced referendum law was conceived by the ‘Citizen-Committee EU’, a small group of Eurosceptics who generally shun publicity. Its leaders have stated that Ukraine is not their prime concern. They would prefer to hold a referendum about Dutch EU-membership. Since the referendum law only covers new acts of parliament, the committee vows to organize popular votes about all legislation pertaining to European affairs, in order to strain the relationship between the Hague and Brussels.
That the committee obtained the required 400.000 signatures came as somewhat of a surprise. They succeeded because signatures could be submitted digitally, and a populist rightwing news website joined the cause. One of its bloggers, Bart Nijman, has waged a Janus-faced campaign, aided by a band of volunteers. On the one hand Nijman claims to merely promote the concept of referenda, while being indifferent to the outcome. On the other hand he led an all-out campaign against Ukraine. His volunteers spread a pamphlet in which they claimed that Ukraine is a country where ‘armed fascist militias march through the streets’. Moreover, they claim that the Ukrainian government possesses and hides radar images that could identify who downed flight MH17.
The far-left Socialist Party in turn argued that the agreement hurts both Ukrainian and Dutch citizens. The socialists claim that the agreement divides the Ukrainian population in two camps, and is therefore a driving force of the war in the country. Future introduction of European market rules in Ukraine would lead to the collapse of the country’s uncompetitive industry, after which destitute workers will migrate as cheap labour to Western Europe, while Dutch taxpayers will have to underwrite loans to the insolvent Kiev government.
Another prominent theme in the campaign was the possibility of future Ukrainian EU-membership, something that is unpopular among Dutch politicians of every stripe. Tellingly, the yes-camp waged a campaign not about a common European future shared with the people on Maidan Square, but about the need to have stable countries adjacent to Europe’s outer border. The no-camp nevertheless claimed that the agreement is a stepping-stone towards Ukrainian EU-membership. Prime-minister Mark Rutte tried hard to debunk this claim, but suffered from a lack of credibility. In the 2012 election campaign he promised not to send any additional money to Greece. Last summer the Dutch government nevertheless approved a new bailout package for Athens.
The Dutch cabinet has been accused of waging a lacklustre and muted yes-campaign. To be fair, this was motivated by understandable concerns. The government did not want to turn the referendum into a popularity contest for Rutte or his social-democratic coalition partner. Both perform poorly in opinion polls.
The cabinet also realized that regardless of what the Dutch people vote, many aspects of the association agreement will be implemented one way or the other. Trade policy is an exclusive competence of the European Commission. Visa free travel is mentioned in the association agreement, but is actually subject to separate and longstanding negotiations. The cabinet was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It would appear a sore loser after 6 April, when the no voters hoped to have blocked all of the above. But to clearly communicate this message before the polls would only have aided Bart Nijman and his associates, who claim that they want to restore democratic control over the European project.
While the outcome of the referendum is unlikely to affect cooperation between Europe and Ukraine in any practical way, the Dutch no-camp has tasted victory. Its leaders have announced that they will try to subject European free trade agreements with Canada and the United States to a popular vote. Half-jokingly, some principled opponents of referenda even wonder whether a British exit out of the EU would require treaty change. In that case Dutch voters might demand that Brussels heeds to their democratically expressed opinion against Brexit.
To return to the question I try to answer in this article, a portion of the Dutch electorate might indeed have something against Ukraine. But more important is a dislike of politicians in Brussels and the Hague. The ‘no’ is not really Kiev’s problem. It will get its agreement with Europe anyway. The outcome of the plebiscite is first and foremost a problem for future Dutch cabinets. Unless the referendum law is changed, they risk to see more European agreements subjected to a popular vote. Every time this happens, an already angry part of the population will grow more frustrated, upset that the cabinet and a Union of 28 member states do not toe the line set out by a minority of the Dutch population.
Marno de Boer works as journalist for the Dutch newspaper Trouw, where he covers Dutch defence and foreign policy, as well as Nato and EU foreign policy.