Dutch referendum on Ukraine 'too close to call', say polls

The vote will address deepening relations between the EU and Ukraine.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

01 Apr 2016

Latest opinion polls suggest that the keenly-awaited Dutch referendum on 6 April on an EU agreement for closer relations with Ukraine is too close to call.

The referendum is being held after 427,000 people backed a citizens' initiative.

The Dutch Parliament had already backed the association agreement, which removes trade barriers between the EU and Ukraine.


But campaigners in the 'No' camp fear that it could be a step towards EU membership and would cost Dutch taxpayers billions of euros. 

The 'No' side argues that Dutch voters should have their say on policies such as EU expansion, legislation and aid packages and is supported by the populist right-wing MP Geert Wilders.

A recent poll commissioned by the Dutch foreign ministry found public opinion evenly split, Dutch newspaper AlgemeenDagblad reported on March 26.

Previous polls have put the 'no' camp firmly in the lead, so the latest poll will encourage Dutch supporters of Ukraine, as well as the numerous Ukrainian artists, politicians and activists who have been campaigning for the 'yes' side.

To win over Dutch voters, Ukrainian activists and officials have organized several information campaigns, business forum, a cinema festival and even a bike ride in the Netherlands, which have been held in late March and at the beginning of April.

One of the key figures that triggered the poll admits he only did it "to create tensions between the Netherlands and the EU", chairman Arjan van Dixhoorn of Burgercomite EU told newspaper nrc.next.

"You have to understand, we don't care about Ukraine," he said.

Elsewhere, UKIP leader Nigel Farage is due to visit the Netherlands in the next few days to help whip up support for the No side. He says he hopes the Dutch vote could lend impetus to Britain's own landmark referendum on whether to leave the EU.

Although the result will not be binding on the government, it will have to be considered if turnout is above 30 per cent and a majority votes against the agreement.

While the referendum, only the second in Dutch history, is on a fairly narrow topic of a trade deal with Kiev, some in the Netherlands are seeking to harness broader scepticism and anger against the EU fuelled in part by the recent influx of migrants.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has urged Dutch voters not to oppose the EU cooperation deal with Ukraine, saying such a move "could open the doors to a continental crisis."

Supporting the EU agreement is Lithuanian MEP Petras Austrevicius, of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and head of the European Parliament's Ukraine Friendship Group.

Those behind the No Poll movement in the Netherlands argue that the poll is justified as Dutch voters should have their say on polices such as EU expansion, legislation and aid packages. 

But, on this, Austrevicius said, "I do not agree that this poll is about EU enlargement or, for that matter, the attitude that the Dutch people have or should have with regard to the EU in general. It is not about this: it is about forming partnerships with countries bordering the EU."

"As such, an agreement of this sort is highly desirable, whatever opponents might say. The association and free trade agreements are a part of the normal functioning of the EU. Are we going to organise a whole succession of referenda every time that the EU has to make a decision?"

"In my opinion, referenda of this sort do not really have a function. In representative democracies citizens elect a government to pursue a set of policies."

On fears that next week's referendum may be used to channel scepticism and anger against the EU, he says, "I am convinced that the EU has been a real success."

"The enlarged EU is a success, too, as it is undoubtedly raising our economies and competition. The EU has raised levels of prosperity across Europe and has greatly encouraged trade between regions and nations. Do you not want larger markets for Italian wine, for the Dutch cheese or for furniture made in Lithuania?"

He adds, "Well, this is one of the benefits of EU enlargement: the goal is to facilitate trade and, in the process, the promotion of European values of representative democracy, non-discrimination and a thriving, innovative economic base."

"It is in our interests to ensure the widening of our success in defending these values when it comes to interacting with our neighbours."

"The Europeanisation of Ukraine and other countries alike will contribute to bringing greater stability and prosperity to the whole continent. The opposite course of action - shutting ourselves up within narrow borders - will mean economic stagnation, greater unemployment and a reduced potential for positive influence in the world."

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