Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Dutch government has to respect the resounding "No" in a non-binding advisory referendum on the Ukraine-European Union (EU) Association Agreement

The Dutch government has to respect the resounding "No" in a non-binding advisory referendum on the Ukraine-European Union (EU) Association Agreement and will discuss the issue with related departments in the country and the EU, the government said.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in response that "The Netherlands will now not ratify the deal just like that." "We take it step by step. We need to discuss this first in the government, in parliament and with our partners in Brussels," which will take days or weeks.

"If the turnout is above 30 percent with such a large margin of victory for the 'No' camp, then my sense is that ratification can't simply go ahead," he said.

After 98.7 percent of the votes counted, around 61 percent voted against the agreement, while almost 38.2 percent voted in favor of the deal and 0.8 percent voted invalid. The turnout of 32.2 percent is above the 30 percent needed to make the referendum valid.

The electoral committee will officially announce the referendum result on April 12.

  • The referendum was the first since a 2015 law made it possible to force through plebiscites by gathering 300,000 signatures on the Internet, which was criticized by some as an instrument for anti-establishment forces. A campaign in The Netherlands last year gathered 420,000 signatures in a short time.

The question now is how the Dutch government will deal with the "No," how the other 27 member states and Ukraine will respond to the outcome and what the Dutch rejection means for the agreement.

"It will be politically problematic if the government decided to ignore the outcome," Antoaneta Dimitrova, associate professor at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, told Xinhua.

"We can not draw safe conclusions on how the Dutch people see the association agreement with Ukraine," said Dimitrova.

"There has been little debate concerning the treaty itself. The Dutch government will find it difficult to negotiate amendments to the treaty with Brussels as it will be little known what the Dutch people objected to in relation to the treaty itself," she explained.

The Ukraine-EU Association Agreement is a treaty between the EU and Ukraine on political, economic and a broad range of legislation and regulation topics. The EU has similar agreements with Turkey, Chile and Morocco, and a number of other countries.

The Netherlands is the only country in the 28-nation EU that still has to ratify the agreement, although the deal has been approved by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.

Some parts of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement have been already provisionally applied since Nov. 1, 2014.

Although in the agreement nothing is said about an EU membership of Ukraine, many Dutch people think differently.

According to a poll by opinion poll agency Ipsos, requested by national broadcaster NOS, 46 percent of the Dutch citizens consider the Association Agreement as the first step toward Ukrainian membership of the EU.

Meanwhile, the referendum, initiated by euro-sceptic Dutch, was seen as a protest vote against the EU. Initiators of the vote have admitted that the vote was essentially not about Ukraine but about a broader anti-EU agenda, such as the immigration open border policies.

Calls for a boycott escalated when voters saw that supporters of the referendum were not really interested in the EU treaty with Ukraine, but in stimulating euro-scepticism among the Dutch, according to political scientist Andre Krouwel at VU University Amsterdam.

And since it was the first time that a threshold has been set on a voting procedure in The Netherlands, "it gave impetus for a new dynamic in which members of the electorate could implicitly vote by simply staying at home," said Krouwel.

"The revelations caused confusion and anger among voters, who decided to abstain from voting," he said.

For some experts, even if ratification is reconsidered by the Dutch government, this would not necessarily mean that the rest of the EU will not implement the treaty with Ukraine.

"The Dutch 'No' vote does not automatically terminate the provisional application of the agreement. It may be expected that a compromise will be sought within the Council of the EU to save this part of the agreement, while somehow taking into account the concerns expressed in the Dutch referendum," said Peter van Elsuwege, professor of the EU law at Ghent European Law Institute (GELI).

"The 'No' vote is rather embarrassing for the Dutch government which currently holds the rotating EU presidency. It is also annoying for the EU as such, taking into account the upcoming Brexit referendum and the rise of euro-scepticism on the continent," van Elsuwege said.

According to Dimitrova, it would also give a negative signal to countries seeking association agreements with the EU, while harming the bloc's credibility.

"In countries like the Western Balkans we might see a negative impact on their effort to implement reforms," she said.

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