A Dutch national referendum today (6 April) on the EU-Ukraine Association agreement is turning into a test of anti-EU sentiment before June’s Brexit vote.
Dutch politicians say rejecting a treaty intended to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union would hand a symbolic victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are widely accused of bringing down an airliner in 2014 with the loss of almost 200 Dutch lives.
Even so, many would-be “yes” voters, plus those frustrated with the Dutch government, are considering staying away from the vote, launched by eurosceptics.
The “no” vote is ahead in polls, but turnout estimates hover around just 30%, the minimum needed for a valid result, on an issue with little national significance.
In addition, few believe that the Ukraine treaty, which has already provisionally gone into effect with the approval of the 27 other EU member states, can be derailed.
“I find it idiotic that we have to have a referendum about it,” said Ottelien, a Dutch woman on a busy shopping street in Amsterdam who did not give her surname.
“I have the feeling that the people who wanted this referendum have a completely different agenda than Ukraine,” she told Reuters TV.
If the referendum result is not valid, or the “yes” vote wins, the process is likely to be written off as a waste of time and money.
However, if voters return a valid “no” vote, less than three months before a British referendum on whether to quit the EU, it could escalate into a domestic or even a European political crisis.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in January that a rejection by the Dutch of Ukraine’s EU association “could open the doors to a continental crisis”.
Europe’s refugee debate has cost Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s already unpopular government further ground and ignoring a “no” vote would be risky with national elections scheduled no later than March 2017.
“It’s an advisory referendum, so the only thing the law requires is that we reconsider it,” Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Tuesday.
In parliament, Rutte’s conservative VVD party has said it would ignore a “no” vote, while junior coalition partner Labour has said it would honour it, setting the stage for a split.
In theory, the Cabinet could use an overwhelming “no” vote to ask the EU to reopen negotiations with Ukraine to alter the treaty, though a collapse of Rutte’s coalition seems more likely.
Polls open at 0530 GMT on Wednesday and close at 1900 GMT.
First exit polls are expected immediately afterward.
The remaining 27 EU members have already ratified the EU-Ukraine Association agreement, Juncker’s spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said yesterday.