The Dutch government is digging its own grave with the Ukraine referendum

rutte-putin

Photo of Vladimir Putin and Mark Rutte during President Putin’s state visit in 2013, from Rutte’s official Flickr page

For Mark Rutte, the visit of President Poroshenko of Ukraine this week must have felt a bit like having the surveyor round when you’re selling your house. It’ll be fine, you think, as long as he doesn’t notice the peeling paintwork in the spare room. The peeling paintwork, in Rutte’s case, was the referendum the Netherlands is holding next April on Ukraine’s accession treaty with the European Union. But mention it Poroshenko did, and in language that played right into the hands of the campaigners for a no vote. Rutte must have been chewing his tie in frustration.

“A vote in this referendum is a vote for or against the Ukrainians who have given their lives for European values,” Poroshenko said in an interview with NRC. “This referendum, wittingly or unwttingly, is grist to Putin’s mill.” The adolescent “shock blog” GeenStijl, one of the organisers of the referendum, revelled in the attention. It shot back with a post arguing that Ukraine’s commitment to European values was less than wholehearted, given that Kiev’s Parliament has twice voted down proposed laws to outlaw homophobic discrimination, and only changed its mind after Poroshenko warned it would jeopardise the country’s dream of EU membership.

The Ukrainian president tried to win over Dutch voters with an emotional appeal based on vague notions of solidarity. We can conclude from this that he hasn’t met many Dutch voters. Poroshenko cited last year’s MH17 disaster as an event that had brought the two nations together, ignoring the fact that the Dutch Safety Board heavily criticised his government for failing to close the air corridor above his country in the weeks before the crash. In a crude attempt to polarise the issue, he said Ukraine was engaged in a fight for “freedom and democracy”. But this oppositional stance merely pushes the debate deeper into the anti camp’s territory.

For campaigners against the accession treaty, the issues are simple. Ukraine is a near-failed state, they say, riddled with corruption, which is desperate to suck on the teat of Brussels. EU membership would lead to a fresh wave of immigration and drain the coffers of wealthy nations like the Netherlands. They point to the recent €3 billion deal with Turkey, which has had an accession treaty since 1964, as an example of how such agreements are an expensive liability. Poroshenko’s words, which sound like a thinly veiled ultimatum – if you don’t take us, Putin will – will fuel the suspicion that the Ukrainians are holding the EU to ransom.

For Rutte, the referendum is a profoundly awkward development as the Dutch prepare to take over the EU presidency in January. It is also a dilemma entirely of his government’s making. Advisory referendums were introduced last July in a misguided attempt to appease populist distrust of the political process – Geert Wilders never misses a chance to decry the nepparliament (“fake Parliament”) when the elected representatives go against the opinion polls. Anyone who gathers 300,000 signatures on a particular law or treaty within six weeks can trigger a plebiscite, which must be held within six months. The GeenPeil group – an offshoot of GeenStijl – immediately targeted the Ukrainian accession treaty and easily met the threshold, collecting 450,000 signatures by mid-October. The vote will be held in April, giving the campaign maximum exposure in the middle of the EU presidency. A ‘no’ vote will be difficult to explain away in Brussels, especially as 28 countries – including the Netherlands – have already ratified the treaty in Parliament.

The no campaigners have made all the running so far. They have wrongfooted the government at every turn, starting with the timing and choice of issue. The accession treaty is a piece of European protocol that is difficult to explain, but relatively easy to attack. It gives voters the chance to stick two fingers up to Rutte’s cabinet and Brussels, at no risk to themselves. Although the result is not binding, a ‘no’ vote would require the cabinet to take the issue back to Parliament, giving Wilders a platform to resume hostilities. By April the next election will be a year or less away and the coalition parties will find it difficult to dismiss the will of the people, especially if the no vote is a resounding one.

The government’s response has been muddled and inconsistent. Labour, the junior partner in the coalition, has said it will respect the outcome of the referendum, while Rutte’s Liberal group insists it will not commit itself until the result is known. The prime minister reaffirmed last week that an accession treaty does not automatically lead to full membership. Other pro-Europeans have suggested the treaty is too complicated an issue for a popular vote, or pinned their hopes on a low turnout (the law only has to be reviewed if 30% of the electorate take part). These arguments are weak and unconvincing at best, patronising at worst. The Ukrainian referendum is a legitimate exercise in democracy, set up according to the cabinet’s own rules, and ministers need to accept the fact. To do otherwise will only erode voters’ trust further.

There are sound arguments for the accession treaty, but nobody seems to be making them. It shouldn’t be dismissed as an obscure technical procedure: an accession treaty is a clear statement of intent, on both sides, to work towards full EU membership. But this will only be achieved if Ukraine meets Europe’s rigorous standards on issues ranging from human rights to fiscal responsibility. It gives the country clear goals and an incentive to meet them, while Europe gets a powerful stick with which to ensure reforms go through. For Ukraine to become eligible for EU membership, its institutions and systems will have be in a much healthier state than they are now. The “failed state” argument is founded on a misunderstanding.

A deal will also bring Ukraine firmly within the EU’s sphere of influence, the thing Vladimir Putin wants least. Europe has nothing to fear from Russia: for all Putin’s energetic sabre-rattling and flypasts in other countries’ air space, the country simply lacks the resources for an out-and-out conflict. A formal relationship between Europe and Ukraine would curtail his ambitions in the region at a stroke.

Rutte, for his part, needs to stop hedging his bets about the outcome and put out a clear message: the government will respect the result, but its final decision will be made in the interests of the nation. That, after all, is what governments exist to do. De-ratifying the treaty at this stage would be profoundly damaging for the Netherlands’ standing in Brussels and within Nato, as well as giving Putin the green light to carry on disrupting his neighbour with impunity. The potential cost of that, in both financial and geopolitical terms, doesn’t bear thinking about.

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