Only Moscow Benefits from Dutch Referendum on Ukraine

  • Jan Surotchak

It comes as no surprise that the April 6 semi-binding referendum in The Netherlands returned an overwhelming “no” vote on the Association Agreement between the European Union (EU) and Ukraine – polls have suggested this outcome from the outset. 

It is nonetheless immensely disappointing that Moscow has once again been allowed to profit from a combination of Western naiveté, its own wisely crafted disinformation narratives, and widespread EU-fatigue in Europe to further undermine the position of independent and democratic Ukraine.

So, what exactly happened?  First of all, there was a bit of genuinely interesting web-based, grassroots civic activism.  Taking advantage of the Advisory Referendum Act passed in 2015 that makes it remarkably easy to call a national referendum in The Netherlands, the Eurosceptic initiative GeenPeil (itself a creation of the blog GeenStijl which brandishes the motto “Tendentious, Unfounded and Needlessly Offensive”) collected well over the 300,000 signatures necessary to call a referendum on this question:  ‘Are you for or against the Approval Act of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine?’  Using a web-based app to publicize and enable the petition, GeenPeil and other partner groups gathered 427,939 valid signatures, forcing the referendum to be called.   Court appeals against the use of an app for this purpose were rejected and the date was set for the first referendum under the new legislation.

Second, broad and deep anti-establishment resentment played a role.  Since its founding in 2003, GeenStijl (which means “No Style” in Dutch) has built up a long record of harassing the powers that be in The Netherlands.  In 2005, the group famously launched an effort to unseat the government of center-right Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkanende that proved to be a hoax.  But in many ways, GeenStijl is more symptom than cause in a political environment that has become a laboratory for the emergence of radical, anti-establishment, and anti-EU movements and parties over the last decade – one need only mention the names Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders by way of example.  And one should not forget that the last time the Dutch population was called to a referendum related to the EU (in that case, the 2005 referendum on the proposed EU constitution), the result was an overwhelming, 62 percent ‘no’ vote. 

In the case of the current referendum, while all of the mainline center-right and center-left parties voted in favor of the Association Agreement in 2015, a colorful collection of Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), Socialists, the Party for Animals (!), and others voted against, giving legislative voice to the country’s core anti-establishment and anti-EU vote.  In the current campaign on the referendum, the impending national elections in 2017 and the rise of Wilders’ PVV to contend for being the strongest party in the country have surely dampened the enthusiasm of liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte to campaign hard for a ‘yes’ vote.  The anti-EU third rail of Dutch politics is never too far from one’s mind, and Wilders has tried hard to turn the Ukraine vote into a referendum on Rutte, tweeting ‘The Netherlands votes Wednesday against the Ukraine treaty, against more EU + against Rutte.’  Still, all the ‘establishment’ parties did call for a yes vote, and some – including Chairman Ruth Peetom’s Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) –actively campaigned for approval, working together with partner politicos from Ukraine itself.  For their part, the ‘no’ campaigners said openly that they didn’t care a bit about Ukraine; their real goal was to move the country toward the ultimate goal of getting The Netherlands out of the EU.  Democratic Ukraine for them became a disposable prop.

Third, pernicious Russian propaganda against Ukraine also reared its head in the debate, demonstrating the ‘whack-a-mole’ nature of trying to counter it.  When the Yanukovych regime was ousted by the Maidan revolution in 2014 and Moscow later annexed Crimea and acted to destabilize Donetsk and Luhansk, part of Moscow’s narrative was that post-Yanukovych Ukraine was being governed by fascist bandits allegedly harking back to earlier periods in Ukrainian history.  Never mind the evidently contradictory facts, this very same narrative found its way into the syllabus of the ‘no’ campaign in the Dutch referendum in the form of flyers easily downloadable from the website contending that Ukraine suffers, among other things, from ‘armed fascist militias’ roaming the streets.  

And this is not the only example.  The Socialist Party, as part of its ‘3 X no’ campaign against the referendum made the Association Agreement ‘partially responsible’ for ‘a bloody civil war with nearly 10,000 deaths and more than a million people in flight.’ Again, never mind the fact that it was the decision by Yanukovych not to sign the Agreement that brought about his downfall and that only then did Russian forces begin their aggression, the picture presented for the Dutch voter was that voting ‘yes’ in the referendum would risk bringing war to Europe’s doorstep and irritating Russia.  

With all these forces combining, the public in the end voted 64 percent to 36 percent against the Association Agreement, thus kicking the ball back to the States General (the Dutch houses of parliament) to take up the issue again, as the referendum is only semi-binding.  The fact that turnout only barely crested the 30 percent minimum necessary for the referendum to be valid gives the Rutte government some space to cast the results as not representative of the population as whole.  Now the government will have to decide how to react: risking public-opinion fallout by retaking the decision to approve the Agreement, or finding a way to finesse the question. In any case, Moscow wins again, but only just.

Up ArrowTop