Dutch vote on Ukraine treaty really a bid to stop EU 'in its tracks': Don Murray

At first glance, a referendum in the Netherlands this week has nothing to do with the future of the EU. It’s on whether to ratify a European treaty on closer ties with Ukraine. But that’s just a pretext, Don Murray writes.

Organizers of referendum this week in the Netherlands admit it is just a pretext

Sofia Pavlovska and Anastasiya Dusanska of Ukraine, who both live in The Hague, pose during the demonstration on the EU referendum at the Dam Square in Amsterdam on April 3, 2016. (Cris Toala Olivares/Reuteres)

Across a beleaguered continent, exit signs are lighting up.

First "Grexit," then "Brexit" and now "Nexit." All three are shorthand for the forces threatening to pull the European Union apart. 

The first refers to Greece's profound economic crisis that came close to dumping the country out of the European common currency, the euro. The second is the jeering title given to the British referendum in June on staying in or leaving the EU. 

And the third?

"Nexit" is about another referendum, this one in the Netherlands on April 6. At first glance, it has nothing to do with the future of the EU. It's on whether to ratify a European treaty on closer economic and political ties with Ukraine. But that's just a pretext, as the referendum organizers openly admit.

Demonstrators call for a 'No' vote in Wednesday's upcoming EU-Ukraine referendum, in Amsterdam on April 3, 2016. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

"We want the EU to stop in its tracks, think for a minute and first solve its democratic shortcomings," Bart Nijman said. 

And who is Bart Nijman? He's one of the leaders of a Eurosceptic, satirical website called GeenStijl. 

It was GeenStijl that seized on a new law, passed last year in the Netherlands, allowing referendums where more 300,000 citizens sign up for one. GeenStijl helped set up a petition and finished with more than 400,000 signatures.

Not really about Ukraine

"The Ukraine vote is really about putting pressure on the Dutch relationship with Europe," said Prof. Arjan van Dixhoorn, who teaches history at the University of Utrecht. He chairs the committee that organized the referendum.

"We really don't care about Ukraine, you need to understand that. The anger in the Netherlands about the EU, about problems in the multicultural society, about government spin is much greater than people think."

This is rich meat for one Dutch politician. He is Geert Wilders, the bleached-blond leader of the Freedom Party, an anti-immigrant, anti-EU grouping that at the moment tops the opinion polls.

Children draw the Ukraine flag on Dam Square as demonstrators for a 'Yes' vote for Wednesday's EU-Ukraine referendum gathered in Amsterdam on April 3, 2016. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

Wilders is a rabble-rouser, so much so that he is on trial a second time for hate speech. He said he wanted "fewer Moroccans" in the Netherlands. He doesn't believe the 59,000 refugees the Netherlands accepted in 2015 are actually refugees. They were migrants, he says, because they could have stopped somewhere else in Europe.

He has also called Islam a "fascist" ideology.

Naturally, he's voting "No" in the referendum. He doesn't want the EU to rethink and reform; he wants out. And he links the Dutch vote with the upcoming referendum in Britain.

"The beginning of the end of the European Union has already started. And it can be an enormous incentive for other countries if the United Kingdom would leave."

All of this is supremely embarrassing to the Dutch government, which is currently the head of the EU's rotating presidency.

Last-minute refusal

Step back almost 2½ years. After laborious negotiations Ukraine was ready to sign a treaty of association with the EU. Then, at the last moment, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign. He had succumbed to fierce pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That refusal led to fierce protests and the so-called Maidan revolution that overthrew Yanukovych. The new president signed the treaty and it has been ratified by 27 of the 28 EU countries. It's actually been provisionally in force since January.

Meanwhile, Putin chose his own response. He seized Crimea and his armed forces helped Donbass separatists trying to set up a breakaway republic in eastern Ukraine. 

Then, in July 2014, a Malaysia Airlines plane, MH17, was shot down over the disputed territory, almost certainly by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile. The dead numbered 298 and 194 of them were Dutch.

So much for background. 

In the foreground of today, the pro-Europeans are still scrambling in the referendum battle. Early polls showed the "No" forces far ahead although the gap has narrowed.

In some desperation, the pro-EU forces have come up with a bogeyman — Vladimir Putin. Do you really want this man, they ask, to profit from our vote after the destruction of so many Dutch people aboard MH17? They suggest he would be the big winner if the treaty is rejected and the EU is further weakened.

But not the only winner, they believe.

Campaign rhetoric

In the closing days of the campaign a Photoshopped poster went up showing Putin passionately kissing Geert Wilders. 

When, five days before the vote, Wilders went to the city of Maastricht to campaign for a "No" in the referendum, he was heckled and forced to give up his rally by protesters shouting, "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here."

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, says the 'beginning of the end of the European Union has already started.' (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

That, no more so than his trial, didn't bother Wilders. He recently tweeted: "Politicians and the press can drop dead. Distance yourself from your cowardice and betrayal of the Netherlands to Islam. Suckers."

Americans and others following the Republican race may find the rhetoric familiar.

The established Dutch parties, both in government and opposition, seem at a loss what to do. Their campaigning has been very discreet. For them, the referendum is almost radioactive. The Dutch, after all, were founder-members of the European project in 1957.

Almost equally invisible have been Europe's other leaders. They loathe referendums. They've been singed before when voters were given the chance to pronounce on their projects.   

A signal for Britain?

In 2005, they had to dump their grandiose project for a "European Constitution" when voters soundly rejected it in two countries — France and the Netherlands.

The referendum on Ukraine is both less and more crucial. Less because the immediate issue is secondary and the vote only consultative. But more because it comes at a time when crises are buffeting the EU almost weekly. 

And a "No" to a European initiative from an EU founder-member might point the way to voters in Britain.

The only one smiling may be Vladimir Putin. According to the EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, a Dutch refusal of the Ukraine treaty would offer him "the fruits of an easy victory."

And even a narrow "Yes" win would be no more than a pyrrhic victory, leaving the EU still bleeding and the Kremlin leader still smiling.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.