The referendum on the Ukraine Association Agreement is throwing up some unexpected elements
On the 6 April, Dutch voters will decide on whether they want their government to support the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine. This is an advisory referendum, but a majority of MPs have said they will heed the advice. The Association Agreement has already been approved by parliament, and the agreement has been provisionally applied since the beginning of the year, but a no-vote might cause the government to pass a new law to withdraw its ratification. European Commission chief Juncker has warned that this could “open the door to a continental crisis”. Here are some unexpected aspects of the referendum debate:
1. The organisers are not interested in Ukraine
This week's referendum is only taking place because of a new referendum law, which makes it possible for the Dutch public to vote over a law that has already been accepted if there is enough public interest, signalled by over 300,000 signatures. The Citizen’s Committee EU, a group of eurosceptics worried about losing sovereignty to the EU, saw that the Association Agreement was one of the first treaties eligible to vote against, and jumped on the chance. They enlisted the help of Geen Stijl, a famously politically incorrect blog, known for its unnuanced commentary on politics and media. The website has a large group of loyal readers that it mobilises for hoaxes and campaigns, and was able to get enough members to make their broadcasting off-shoot PowNed a regular rude fixture on Dutch public television. Geen Stijl embraced the petition and publicised it widely, and the action gathered over 420,000 valid signatures. “We don’t care about Ukraine at all, you’ll understand that” said one of the initiators of the plan in an interview last week. “A Nexit-referendum is not possible at this point, so we use all other means possible to put pressure on the relationship between the Netherlands and the EU”.
2. There is a chicken-shaped shadow over the debate
Dutch commuters currently have to deal with an uncomfortable sight: trains stations are adorned with posters of suffering chickens in factory farms. 'Is this what you want to be associated with?' ask animal rights campaigners. Since parts of the Association Agreement have come into force on the 1 January 2016, the tax-free import quotas for chicken have been upped to 36m000 tons. A large part of this comes from the largest poultry farm and slaughterhouse in Europe, based in Ukraine. This monster farm is on its way to slaughter as many chickens in-house in a year as are killed in the whole of the Netherlands, where farming standards are considerably higher. The ‘chicken dump’ on the Dutch market also hurts local farmers. Ironically, the chicken plant was able to grow because of tens of millions of euros in loans from Dutch banks, and investments from Dutch companies. Proponents of the Association Agreement argue that it would be an excellent way for the EU to influence Ukrainian rules and regulations and improve animal welfare, but campaigners such as the small political party ‘Party for the Animals’ instead expect that standards in Europe will be lowered as a result of a yes-vote.
This is not the only side-effect of trade that has been injected into the debate: other campaigners promote a no-vote because of fracking, GMOs, swine flu, child labour, and the use of nuclear energy.
3. Putin is used on both sides of the argument
A poster used by the yes camp is a drawing of Vladimir Putin in front of a map of Europe, smiling happily, offering a red pencil to the viewer. A mark in the wrong box would add Ukraine to the red sphere of influence of Russia. For those with a more macro view of the referendum, what the EU could mean for Ukraine and its ongoing conflict with Russia is the major point of contention. Even where the different parties agree on the facts, their outcome is different. While for some, the fact that Ukraine is under attack by Russia, weakened by corruption, and still partly ruled by oligarchs, is a reason for the EU to exert its positive influence, for others this is a reason to cut off all ties to protect the Dutch interest. Possible repercussions by Putin are seen by the ‘yes’ camp as a reason to stand strong, by the ‘no’ camp as a reason to vote against and avoid possible economic damages. And this reflects a more fundamental problem European countries are facing: European soft power is now seen as either ineffective or wasted on its recipients, and not everyone agrees that ‘European values’ are worth risking commercial interests for.
Incidentally, one poster was seen as too offensive by the Dutch Railways: a drawing of Putin in a passionate embrace with Eurosceptic party leader Geert Wilders. “This love only knows losers” was its doomed slogan.
4. The only way the proponents can win might be by not voting
According to several polls, the ‘no’ vote currently has a large majority. Market research company TNS-Nipo found for the newspaper de Telegraaf that 51 percent plan to vote "no" and I&O Research and Volkskrant expect 47 percent to do so. Both found a similar group of 'yes' votes: 37 and 36 percent respectively. Both also expect the turnout to be enough to make the referendum count: the magic number is 30 percent. The only hope for those in favour of closer ties with Ukraine is thus either that they everyone who has said they would vote 'yes' and more shows up, or that all yes-voters and some no-voters stay at home, making the referendum void. The latter strategy, although more likely to succeed, is not an easy feat to coordinate. Voter turnout is reasonably high in the Netherlands, with an average of around 80 percent for parliamentary elections in the years where voting was not compulsory. But the turnout for EU Parliament elections has not gone over 39 percent in the last five instalments. In the only other example of an EU-related referendum, detailed below, the turnout was 63.3 percent.
5. The short Dutch referendum history doesn’t bode well for the Association Agreement
In 2005, a referendum was held on the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. Both government and opposition parties supported the ‘yes’ campaign, with a large majority in parliament. However, on the 1 June 2005, 61.5 percent of voters voted against acceptance of the treaty. This referendum was also just advisory, but was accepted by the government. In France, the Treaty had been voted down in a referendum a few days before, and this meant the end of the Constitution in that shape. The referendum was the first one held in the Netherlands in modern times, and pollsters found that part of the population voted against for reasons that had nothing to do with the Constitution, such as protesting against the Balkenende government and fear of the accession of Turkey to the EU. Overly dramatic interventions by proponents of the Constitution were seen as counter-productive as well: a minister from the Christian Democrat party implied that Christians were obliged to vote in favour, another minister claimed that “the lights would go out” in Europe in case of a no-vote, and one party produced a (never used) TV advertisement using images of the holocaust and the Srebrenica genocide.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.