THE HAGUE: Dutch voters are gearing up to make their voices heard on a key European cooperation deal with Ukraine, in a referendum next week organised by euroskeptic groups and seen as a proxy poll on EU ties.
But after a low-key campaign, many of the country’s 12.5 million eligible voters still say they are puzzled by what exactly they are voting for in Wednesday’s poll, only the second since 2005 on European Union issues.
In an added twist, observers say the referendum’s non-binding outcome is more important to Ukraine, where a pro-EU revolution ousted Kiev’s Russian-backed leadership in 2014 and has made active moves to cosy up to the West.
Dutch organisers last week admitted the vote on the so-called EU Association Agreement — which mainly bolsters trade with Kiev — is essentially not about Ukraine, but a handy platform to push a broader anti-EU agenda and “give citizens more say in Brussels”.
“We want a referendum because we feel somebody has to ring the alarm bells for our democracy,” said Bart Nijman of the GeenPeil (No Poll) lobby group.
GeenPeil is one of three movements that helped trigger the popular vote on the back of a new Dutch law that allows citizens to retroactively voice opinions on legislative decisions.
The Netherlands is now the only country in the 28-nation EU bloc still to ratify the accord and the deal has been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch Parliament.
“The EU wants too much, too fast and thereby Brussels seems to have lost the people’s mandate,” Nijman, a key organizer of the “No” campaign told Agence France-Presse.
His group holds up the EU-Ukraine accord as a typical example of an over-reaching bureaucratic Brussels that doesn’t consult its citizens before making decisions.
With campaigning stepping up pace this weekend, aided by some top Ukrainian officials on special visits seeking to push a “Yes” vote, many remain baffled.
“I know there’s a referendum about an accord, but I don’t know more than that,” said Ans, 49, a Dutch voter when asked by AFP.
The referendum however is only advisory, and the Dutch government has repeatedly said it will await the outcome before deciding what steps to take.
But if Wednesday’s turnout reaches the 30 percent threshold needed for the poll to be valid — and if a “No” vote against the Kiev deal wins — Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the Netherlands, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, will be left facing a major embarrassment, analysts say.
While the government has abstained from actively campaigning, Dutch cabinet ministers including the Liberal Rutte and his junior partner, Labour Party’s Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher have urged citizens to vote in favour of the deal.
“I’m whole-heartedly voting ‘Yes’… because I fully believe it’s good for both the Netherlands and Ukraine,” Asscher told reporters Friday.
He lashed out at those “abusing” the referendum as an anti-EU platform.
“Let me be very clear. This is about Ukraine, even if you have criticism of the EU,” Asscher said, adding “there are other ways to make anti-EU feelings known”.
Tony van der Togt, senior researcher at The Hague’s respected Clingendael think-tank, told AFP the EU-Ukraine referendum has been hijacked by euroskeptics in the Netherlands pushing a broader agenda.
It was “more to make an anti-EU statement… more about tackling the EU and they would even consider pushing a ‘Nexit’ in the future,” he said, alluding to Britain’s move. On June 23 Britain will hold its own referendum on whether to leave the EU which has been dubbed as a possible “Brexit.”
Van der Togt also warned the Dutch referendum could set a dangerous precedent for other European countries.
“There is a risk that all kinds of other referenda in other European countries are going to be organised. If you allow this to happen everywhere within the EU you can’t take any decisions any more,” he said.
But Henk Loos, 59, said he’ll cast a “No” vote against the accord next week.
“It’s good to have a referendum. It’s good because the people are going to make their voices heard,” Loos said. AFP