Dutch Referéndum Could Cause Trouble for European Unión

By STEVEN ERLANGER


Campaigners for and against ratification of the trade deal gathered in Amsterdam on Sunday. Credit Evert Elzinga/European Pressphoto Agency  
     
 
LONDON — A local, nonbinding referendum on a signed-and-sealed European trade deal might not normally make for high political drama. But if the Dutch say no on Wednesday to a two-year-old agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, the vote could cause major headaches for Brussels, the Dutch government and even the British one.
 
At issue is an association agreement signed in March 2014, just after the Maidan uprising that caused Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, to flee his country. The deal creates a free-trade area between the 28-nation bloc and Ukraine, and points toward a gradual economic convergence with the rest of Europe.
 
It was the very idea of this arrangement — and Moscow’s strong opposition to it — that caused Mr. Yanukovych to change his mind and reject the deal, prompting the uprising that finally deposed him. The current government in Kiev is in favor of the agreement, which the other nations of the European Union have ratified and which, in fact, has been partially fulfilled. 
Jan Roos of the Dutch euroskeptic group GeenPeil — which means “not a clue” and is supposed to characterize the European Union. Credit Bart Maat/European Pressphoto Agency   
 
The Netherlands, however, has both a shaky coalition government, with elections due next March, and a new law on referendums. Now, a Dutch euroskeptic social-media group called GeenPeil — which means “not a clue” and is supposed to characterize the European Union — is using the new law to test popular opinion on the agreement.
 
The group quickly got far more than the 300,000 online signatures required to force a plebiscite, asking the Dutch whether they “support or oppose the ratification of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine.” Given the newness of the law and the heat around the arguments, GeenPeil is confident of getting the required turnout of more than 30 percent of voters to make the referendum valid.
 
If Dutch voters oppose the deal against the vote of their duly elected Parliament, as they are currently expected to do, Mr. Rutte “will have to find a middle road,” Mr. Korteweg said. After all, he noted, the Netherlands currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council.


Geert Wilders, center, the fiercely anti-Brussels opposition leader, in Dordrecht, The Netherlands, on Saturday. Credit Remko De Waal/European Pressphoto Agency    
 
 
But a “no” vote would be awkward, given that Geert Wilders, the fiercely anti-Brussels opposition politician, is again doing well in opinion polls and is neck and neck with Mr. Rutte’s party. That is one reason Mr. Rutte has kept a certain distance from the referendum, only recently doing media interviews to support ratification, because he does not want to alienate the euroskeptics — even those within his own party — while also trying not to anger his European partners.
 
A trend toward more “popular democracy” is visible in Europe, with other countries, like Hungary, flirting with referendums. Such direct votes are likely to follow on other issues, meaning European Union decision-making, already complicated, could become even harder, especially if the decisions of democratically elected governments and parliaments cannot be considered binding and final.
 
Any further public support of euroskepticism would cause concern for Prime Minister David Cameron’s government in Britain, which faces its own fiercely fought referendum on June 23 on whether to stay in the European Union, which Mr. Cameron favors.
 
The usual problem with referendums is that voters tend to vote emotionally on what bothers them, not necessarily on the merits of the question asked. The European Union is out of favor and so is Ukraine, which remains fairly corrupt even after the Maidan revolution and democratic elections.  
 
Nor will new revelations in the Panama Papers about offshore accounts held by the current
Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, help those who want to defeat the referendum.
 
But those revelations could cut both ways, since they also suggest that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, through close friends and intermediaries, has even more money stashed away offshore. Mr. Putin is hardly popular in the Netherlands, given that 193 Dutch passengers were killed in 2014 when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a Russian-made missile fired by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists. The Dutch public was strongly behind the European Union’s imposing sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
 
But even the GeenPeil organizers say that the referendum has more to do with anger at the European Union than with Ukraine or Russia. The “yes” campaign is pressing that issue, warning that a “no” would give Mr. Putin what he wants. So whatever the intention of the referendum, the results are likely to be judged differently.
 
As Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, said, “The Dutch referendum on Ukraine tomorrow might be a joke, but one that could have very serious consequences.”

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