World

Dutch voters say No in referendum to EU-Ukraine deal

Dutch voters have overwhelmingly rejected a Ukraine-European Union treaty on closer political and economic ties, in a rebuke to their government and to the European Union establishment.

Only 32% voted, but opposition says result 'is the beginning of the end' for government

Dutch far-right Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders, seen after casting his vote in the Hague, the Netherlands, welcomed the result. (Michael Kooren/Reuters)

Dutch voters have overwhelmingly rejected a Ukraine-European Union treaty on closer political and economic ties, in a rebuke to their government and to the European Union establishment.

The treaty, which had already been signed by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government and approved by all other European Union nations as well as Ukraine, took effect provisionally in January.

But that didn't stop Dutch voters on Wednesday rejecting the deal by a 64-36 margin in a national referendum. In another sign of antipathy, only 32 per cent of voters went to the polls, fewer than in other recent elections and barely enough for the result to be considered valid.

Voters said they were voicing their opposition not only to the treaty itself but also to European policymakers on matters ranging from the migrant crisis to economic policy, not long before Britain's June vote on whether to stay in the EU.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, seen in Tokyo on Thursday, said the country will still keep pressing forward with the European Union deal. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Although the Dutch referendum was non-binding, Rutte acknowledged late on Wednesday it was politically impossible for his unpopular government to continue ratifying the treaty in its current form.

However, as the Dutch currently hold the EU's rotating presidency, he will need time to figure out whether and how he can alter the treaty in a way that could satisfy all parties.

Rutte said the government would consult with parliament and European partners "step by step. That could take days or weeks."

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said on Thursday his country will continue moving towards the European Union despite the Dutch vote.

"Under any circumstances we will continue to implement the association agreement with the European Union including a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement," he told reporters in Tokyo.

Several options on table

Moscow has said it regards the Dutch vote as an internal affair.

Any proposed changes to the EU-Ukraine treaty will have to pass both houses of Dutch parliament, including the Senate, where Rutte's shaky coalition lacks a majority. Some political commentators have predicted a coalition collapse over the issue, though new elections must be called no later than March 2017 anyway.

If a compromise can be found, it must also be palatable to other European countries, as well as the European Union Commission and the Ukrainian government.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte casts his vote for the consultative referendum in the Hague on Wednesday. (Michael Kooren/Reuters)

Rutte's main political rival, the anti-EU, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, whose popularity has hit all-time highs amid Europe's refugee crisis, said the result was "the beginning of the end" for Rutte's government and the EU in its current form.

"If two-thirds of the voters say no, that is a vote of no confidence by the people against the elite from Brussels and The Hague," he tweeted.

The European Commission has said it will wait for the Dutch government to suggest a way forward.

Options include leaving the Ukraine agreement in force provisionally, or drafting exemption clauses for the Netherlands as has happened in somewhat similar circumstances in the past.

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