(FT) Putin would applaud the loudest if referendum hurt EU ties with Kiev.
In 1972, 44 years before this week’s Dutch vote on a EU-Ukraine association agreement, France held a referendum on whether to let Britain, Denmark and Ireland join the European Economic Community, the EU’s forerunner. If French voters had said “No” to what became the EEC’s first expansion beyond its six-member founding club, Europe’s history might have turned out very differently. In the event, the French voted in favour by 68 to 32 per cent on a 60 per cent turnout.
Contemporary commentators viewed the margin of victory and turnout, which was low for that era, as a less-than-ringing endorsement of EEC enlargement. Measured by the standards of 1972, however, Wednesday’s Dutch referendum was a far less satisfactory consultation of the popular will. Some 61 per cent of voters rejected the EU-Ukraine accord, but the 32 per cent turnout was so low that the referendum was almost invalid.
Vast numbers of the 12.5m eligible Dutch voters either did not know the referendum was happening, or did not understand what it was about, or did not care enough about it to vote. A segment of the electorate abstained in a deliberate attempt to invalidate it. The outcome bears a less convincing stamp of democratic legitimacy than the 2005 referendum in which Dutch voters, on a 63 per cent turnout, rejected a draft EU constitutional treaty.
The referendum will nonetheless have consequences for European politics. The fact that it happened at all underscores that anti-EU movements are eager to exploit the doubts of many European citizens about the quality of democracy and accountability in the EU. More attempts to embarrass Europe’s political establishments and weaken the EU are to be expected, starting with Britain’s referendum on staying in or leaving the bloc.
Pro-EU Ukrainians, meanwhile, will take the Dutch result as a slap in the face. Scores of their compatriots, wrapped in the EU flag, sacrificed their lives in the 2013-14 Maidan revolution that toppled Viktor Yanukovich, the corrupt Moscow-backed president. Critics of Petro Poroshenko, his successor, and other post-Maidan politicians will contend that the Dutch suspicion of closer ties reflects broader EU concerns about persistent corruption and oligarchy in Ukraine since 2014.
Europe’s rightwing populist movements, such as France’s National Front, the Dutch Freedom party and Britain’s UK Independence party, are portraying the result as a popular revolt against the EU and, in particular, its future enlargement into eastern Europe. This is deceitful insofar as Ukraine is not a candidate for EU membership, a point the Dutch government should have made more explicitly to voters in the campaign.
European governments justifiably want to help Ukraine by expanding trade and encouraging it to adopt EU standards in public procurement and company law. If the Dutch result caused the EU to retreat from these features of the association accord, it would damage the bloc’s reputation as a reliable partner. No one would applaud louder than Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Hostility to the EU is the common ground on which Mr Putin and Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, stand. British voters should keep this in mind when they vote on June 23.
Thankfully, the Dutch result need not derail the EU-Ukraine association accord. Its trade arrangements came into provisional force on January 1. They cannot be suspended without the unanimous agreement of all 28 EU nations. Even if the Dutch government decides not to ratify the accord, the EU’s efforts at forging closer ties with Kiev can and should survive.sjuiom