The Dutch public, voting in a referendum, slapped down the EU’s agreement with Ukraine. OpenEurope reports:
In the referendum that took place yesterday, Dutch voters rejected the Association Agreement establishing closer economic and political ties between the EU and Ukraine by 61.1% to 38.1% – with 0.8% of blank ballots. Turnout was low at 32.2%, but above the 30% threshold required for the referendum to be valid. Commenting on the result, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the ratification of the EU-Ukraine agreement “can’t simply go ahead. We will now begin a step-by-step process. The cabinet will discuss [the result]. There will then be consultations with the lower house [of the Dutch parliament] and our European partners. We will take time for that. It will take weeks, rather than days.”
It’s unclear what exactly the results will mean. The Dutch Parliament is not obligated to follow the terms of the referendum and could still vote to ratify the agreement (many pro-deal politicos will note the referendum’s low turnout). Even if it doesn’t, a provisional EU-Ukraine trade agreement has been in place since January that the Dutch cannot unilaterally overturn it. This status quo may be enough for the time being (and eurocrats excel at revisiting questions later when they didn’t like the first answer). Ultimately, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko may well be right when he said that, “strategically, [the result] does not imperil Ukraine’s path towards Europe.”
But in the larger picture, this is still an important turn of events. The big winner: Russia, which has been handed a big propaganda coup in its semi-war in Ukraine. Vladmir Putin will be sure to milk this for all it’s worth as he preaches to his people and to the Ukrainians that Slavs and Westerners are not the same and cannot be governed by the same rules.
The big losers: European elites. This rebuke appears to be overdetermined by at least two major factors. Peter Cleppe of Open Europe argues that the referendum is best understood as an attempt by Dutch voters to force a debate about where the EU is headed:
Given that a full on referendum about EU membership is explicitly excluded in the [Dutch] legislation establishing the referendum mechanism, campaigners latched onto the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement as the best option for forcing the debate. They needed a piece of EU legislation which was yet to come into force and upon which they could hang their broader concerns, this agreement seemed to fit the bill.
And over at NRO, Andrew Stuttaford has some numbers that appear to back the “it was about the EU, writ large” position up:
Just over 61 percent of those who voted rejected the Ukraine deal. Crucially, turnout exceeded the required threshold of 30 percent, if only barely (32.2%). Interestingly enough, an almost identical percentage (61.54%) rejected that proposed EU constitution back in 2005, although on a much higher turnout (63.3%). The geographical split (for and against) was also very similar.
The bill for Europe’s democratic deficit has to come due at some point, and as most EU-watchers know, if Brexit happens, all eyes will be on the restive Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ euroskeptic PVV is handily outpolling all the parties in the current ruling coalition. (It’s noteworthy that, the Dutch have one of the longest traditions of independence and democracy in Europe.) And the Byzantine nature of European politics, which EU elites so often use to shield their decisions from popular scrutiny, cuts both ways: the voters as much as the eurocrats may well have learned the art of connecting two seemingly unconnected issues.
But that doesn’t mean that the rejection of the Ukraine Association Agreement has nothing to do with Ukraine. While some Dutch may have seen this as a proxy vote, there was plenty of reason to hold the EU accountable on the Ukraine question specifically. As we have noted since before the Ukranian conflict began, the bureaucrats in Brussels failed utterly to realize what they were doing when they made the initial Association Agreement to Ukraine. They did not anticipate the conflict this would stir up in Ukraine, nor violent Russian reaction and the ensuing way in which Europe would be drawn into a broader confrontation with Putin. Add on top of that the fact that Ukraine’s reform progress appears to be stalling, and you have a recipe for voter fatigue slowly ripening into disgust. Just because the Russian President is the bad guy in all this, and the eurocrats were acting out of the desire to spread democracy and help their neighbors, doesn’t mean that under these circumstances you’d be wrong to mistrust the latter’s judgment for a while.
The handling of the mess that is Ukraine is just one of many displays of elite incompetence (the euro and immigration crises also come to mind) that are feeding mistrust with Brussels and a rise in inward-looking national politics across Europe. And while elites may bemoan such small-mindedness, the simple truth is that until they prove they can do a better job, they’re likely to be trusted to do less and less going forward.