In Brexit warm up Dutch voters to consider EU treaty with Ukraine
By Anthony Deutsch and Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM: Dutch voters will decide onWednesday whether to support a European treaty deepening tieswith Ukraine in a referendum that will test sentiment towards
Brussels ahead of Britain's June Brexit vote and could alsobring a boost for Russia.
The broad political trade and defence treaty is alreadyprovisionally in place but has to be ratified by all 28 EuropeanUnion member states for every part of it to have full legalforce. The Netherlands is the only country that has not done so.
While a "no" vote in the non-binding referendum would notforce the Dutch government to veto the treaty on an EU level thefragile coalition which holds the rotating EU presidency might
find it hard to ignore with less than a year to generalelections.
Any rejection by Dutch voters or by the government wouldgive Russian President Vladimir Putin who opposes deeperEU-Ukraine ties and who many Dutch blame for the downing bypro-Russian rebels of a plane travelling from Amsterdam avictory in his war of words with the West.
An EU decision to push on with the treaty despite a "novote" whether the government respects it or not could bedamaging for the EU and highlight EU problems ahead of theBritish vote.
"If politicians ignore the Dutch no then it will be an evenstronger signal than what the British have already received thatthere is no way to correct the European political class and that
they should vote to leave" said Thierry Baudet a "no"campaigner and one of the architects of the referendum that wastriggered when activists gathered thousands of signatures ofsupport.
Many Dutch feel they are being asked to choose between twounattractive options: EU expansion plans dreamed up byunaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels or helping Russian Putin
who they blame for the MH17 plane disaster which killed almost200 Dutch citizens in July 2014.
Others are confused by the issues.
"I'm not voting" said Gijs a driving instructor inAmsterdam. "I can't understand what this referendum is aboutand I can't understand why it was called."
A poll by Maurice De Hond on Sunday forecast that 66 percentof people certain to vote would back 'No' with only 25 percentin favour with turnout likely to be decisive in shaping the
final result. Pollsters TNS Nipo have forecast turnout of 32percent just above the 30 percent threshold that is needed forthe referendum to be valid.
The government which supports a "yes" vote fears it couldturn into a protest vote like in 2005 when a majority of theDutch electorate broke from a pro-European tradition andrejected the EU constitution.
"I hope the Dutch can get over their chagrin and say: 'Yeswe are annoyed with Europe we are annoyed with this Dutchgovernment but we will still support Ukraine" said DutchFinance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem.
While some parliamentary parties have said they would bebound by the outcome "the government position is that we willfollow the law which simply says we will reconsider" said
Dijsselbloem lending weight to the view that the governmentwill seek to preserve the treaty or its essence whatever theoutcome.
The government itself shied away from framing the vote in aRussian context but shifted tactic as the referendum approaches.
The youth wing of Dijsselbloem's Labour Party the juniorparty in the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Mark Rutte haverun a poster campaign showing anti-EU populist Geert Wilders
passionately kissing Putin.
"Vladimir Putin's shadow is lurking fairly significantlyover this treaty" said "yes" campaigner Joshua Livestroarguing that a "no" vote will play into Putin's hands.
"Are we now going to give Putin what he wants after all?" hesaid.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte's cabinet initially stressed thetreaty's economic benefits but has since focused on itsimportance for Ukrainian reform in the areas of corruptionhuman rights and democracy.
"Everyone who wants progress in Ukraine is asking us to vote'yes' along with 27 other countries. That's what the referendumis about and nothing else" Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk
Asscher said on Friday.
"No" campaigners say the treaty is a first step toward fullEU membership. "Legal scholars call it quasi membership" saidBaudet.
Many Ukrainian politicians feel their country deserves thetreaty and are keen to show they have made progress in aligningtheir country with EU standards since the 2014 uprising that
toppled pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich.
In a Dutch television interview on Sunday Foreign MinisterPavlo Klimkin emphasized progress in areas such as gay andtransgender rights where the Dutch have always viewed hemselvesas progressive leaders.
"In the past 24 months since Maidan we've done more reformsthan in the last 24 years" he said.