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On April 6, 2016, the Netherlands held a national referendum where the Dutch people were asked to speak out for or against the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine – a large treaty between Brussels and Kyiv, signed in 2014 and ratified in 2015. As expected, the Association opponents won the referendum with approximately two thirds voting against, and circa one third in favor of the Agreement. Yet for everybody who knows a bit about the EU, the nationwide, expensive and low-turnout Dutch plebiscite on this EU-Ukraine contract looks odd.
Why was the Dutch referendum such an unusual procedure? The European Community/Union has, in the last 60 years, concluded dozens of association, free-trade, stabilization and cooperation agreements with countries around the world ranging from South Africa to Chile. Association and similar arrangements are neither new nor exceptional, but an old, standard tool of EU foreign policy, and practiced by other international organizations, too. They are, for good reasons, mostly ignored by the general public in Europe and elsewhere.
It is true that the recent Association Agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are larger than previous such EU treaties. These three agreements include provisions for establishing so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas among the three countries and the Union. While one can thus make an argument that these treaties are somewhat novel, this is still hardly enough ground for elevating the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement to an issue suitable for a national referendum. In view of the relative lack of consequence of the EU’s association agreements for the Netherlands’ future, organizing a popular vote on one of these treaties is bizarre.
This is even more true as the EU’s new agreement with Ukraine – like those with Moldova and Georgia – does not include an explicit EU membership perspective. Although large, these three new European covenants thus remain classical international treaties that, so far, do not envisage a fundamental change of the EU itself. Why did Dutch citizens care to vote on an EU association agreement that does not mention a membership perspective? It would make more sense to hold, instead, referenda on the EU’s older association agreements with Turkey or the Western Balkan states that do include membership perspectives, and are thus potentially more consequential for Dutch citizens.
It is true that one day Ukraine could become a member of the Union, and that many Ukrainians see this Agreement as a stepping stone towards EU accession – even though they know that this can only happen in the distant future. It is also true that each new member country of the EU changes the Union to one degree or another, as well as, indirectly, also the Netherlands’ place in world affairs. Yet, why had neither Holland, nor any other member state of the EU so far bothered to conduct a popular vote on the accession of other countries to the EC/EU? Why had the Dutch apparently not cared enough about the simultaneous accession of 10 East European countries in 2004/2007 to the EU, while on April 6, 2016 they expressed their national will on a mere foreign treaty of the EU with another East European country?
Over the last two years, pro-Kremlin Russian and other enemies of the Ukrainian nation have been proclaiming loudly that the EU’s Association Agreement with Kyiv violates Russian interests and thus destabilizes European security. Yet this Agreement is mainly about trade, and not an anti-Russian pact. It does not prevent Ukraine from having free-trade and other far-reaching agreements with third parties, including Russia. Russia’s wish that Ukraine should enter a Moscow-dominated trade and customs bloc, like the recently established Eurasian Economic Union, had never had any significant support among Ukraine’s political elite, not even in the former pro-Russian administrations of Ukrainian presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin signaled – too late in the process – its unexpected opposition Kyiv’s association with Brussels. Instead, it had earlier signaled its consent to Ukraine even entering the EU, and for years simply ignored Ukraine’s negotiations of the treaty with the EU. Only in 2013, after the Agreement had been already fully formulated and initialed, did Russia come out strongly against it. As EU officials will confirm, the Kremlin’s claims about allegedly large Russian losses from Ukraine’s association with the EU are hyperbolic. Moscow’s loudly pronounced fears are disproportionate to the treaty’s actual repercussions for the Russian-Ukrainian trade – which has recently, because of the war, been reduced to a minimum anyway. Russia’s economic damages from its aggressive reaction to the Association Agreement already now by far exceed any losses it may be suffering from the treaty’s implementation.
The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is neither important for the Netherlands, nor does it mean much for the internal affairs of the EU; nor is it, as such, a threat to European security. What makes it nevertheless so explosive is the concern for Moscow that this Agreement constitutes Ukraine’s chance to become a truly liberal-democratic and economically dynamic country. The agreement provides Ukrainians today with the hope for a survival of their young state, as well as for a brighter future and new opportunities for their children. If successfully implemented, the Agreement will help Ukraine to gradually become a politically stable and economically successful member of larger Europe.
It is this prospect that would indeed constitute a grave threat to Putin’s kleptocratic clique: Ukraine’s consolidation and rebirth could encourage the Russian people to rise and demand political change similar to the one the Ukrainians enacted with their two initially peaceful uprisings of 2004 and 2013/2014. A diffusion of EU values and ideas via Ukraine to Russia would be the end of the Putin system. That is the predominant reason why the Kremlin reacted to aggressively to Ukraine’s turn to the EU.
On July 17, 2014, the 298 crew members and passengers, most of them Dutch citizens, of flight MH17 became victims of Russia’s current rulers’ ruthless resistance against the spread of democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe. Today, few informed observers would question the Kremlin’s full responsibility for this horrible event: The high-tech anti-aircraft missile that hit the airliner at an altitude of over 10 km must have been of Russian origin, and could have been operated only by well-trained, i.e. Russian, soldiers. Some commentators in the Netherlands and elsewhere still blame the Ukrainian state for not timely identifying the emerging threat for civilian air transport in the Donbass. What they forget, however, is that the Ukrainian state was not any longer present in and had incomplete information on the so-called “separatist” territories where the Russian high-tech installation had appeared shortly before the incident. The Dutch Safety Board, in its recent report on the event, criticized the – in July 2014 – fragile Ukrainian state for not recognizing the growing risk. Yet the Dutch Safety Board did not mention in its report another state which had full knowledge of the risk of using high-tech anti-aircraft weapons in Ukraine – because that state had purposefully sent these weapons into the Ukrainian state in order to destabilize it and kill Ukrainians.
The obvious weakness of the Ukrainian state that many Westerners lamented with regard to its handling of the unclear situation in summer 2014 was also what, in the first place, had led to the Russian aggression against Ukraine in spring of 2014. The Ukrainian state was not only unable to prevent the death of almost three hundred civilians on flight MH17. The Ukrainian state was, in 2014, also not in a position to protect its own borders, mobilize its own army, and to save the life of at least 9000 Ukrainians who have died since, as a result of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine. The small Netherlands, as one of the larger Western trading partners of and investors in Russia are – like various other EU countries economically engaged with Moscow – indirectly co-financing the Kremlin’s foreign military operations in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, including the construction and deployment of expensive BUK anti-aircraft missiles.
The citizens of the Netherlands have nevertheless, in their referendum, decided to make a gift to the Kremlin, as their "no"-vote constitutes a major symbolic victory in Kremlin's hybrid war against Ukraine. To be sure, the Dutch popular rejection of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement will have few practical consequences for today’s foreign and domestic affairs of either the EU or the Netherlands. It collected only slightly more than the 30% minimum turnout needed, and will not in any way cancel the Association Agreement.1
However, the rejection of the Association Agreement by Holland's population is a propaganda triumph for Putin, and will be a lasting embarrassment for the Dutch nation. It constitutes a public humiliation of millions of Ukrainians who in the last years have been fighting both peacefully and, on the East Ukrainian battlefields, with arms for their national liberation and European integration. The Dutch referendum vote against Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU is a setback for the development towards a peaceful and united Europe, and a stab in the back of Russia’s democratic opposition to Putin. The Dutch vote sends a disturbing signal to other nations of the post-Soviet space, including the Russian people, who are trying to free themselves from the Kremlin’s current power holders’ neo-authoritarian tutelage, and to become instead part of a larger Europe.