(FT) Dutch voters opposed a trade deal between the EU and Ukraine by a margin of nearly two-to-one, throwing Europe’s united stance against Kremlin meddling in Ukraine into question and boosting those in the UK campaigning for Britain to leave the bloc.
Turnout just breached the 30 per cent level required to force the hand of a government that had agreed to abide by the result if the threshold were passed.
Although Dutch Eurosceptics used the referendum as a test case for rising anti-EU sentiment in the country, the vote could have wider-ranging implications for Ukraine’s future.
The EU pact, which is both a European integration treaty as well as a free-trade agreement, sparked demonstrations in Kiev two years ago that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich when he bowed to Kremlin pressure and refused to sign it.
The revolution in Kiev prompted Russia to annex Crimea and Russian-backed separatists to launch a bloody civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Kiev’s new pro-western leadership later went on to sign the EU deal.
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, condemned the vote, calling it “an attack on the spreading of European values,” and vowed to continue working towards integration with the EU.
“I declare that we will not turn away from the Euro-integration path,” Mr Poroshenko said on Thursday.
In a statement, Mariana Betsa, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, said that while her country “takes into consideration” the results of what she noted was a non-binding referendum, Kiev hoped the Dutch government would make a “decision meeting the interests of Ukraine, the Netherlands and Europe.”
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, who had offered cautious and last-minute support for the treaty, conceded that the Netherlands would not be able to automatically ratify the Ukraine deal, potentially paving the way for months of tortuous negotiations with Brussels over a new pact. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has long demanded a reopening of treaty negotiations to halt Kiev’s drift into the EU’s sphere of influence.
In total, 61 per cent of Dutch voters opposed the deal, while just 38 per cent supported it.
Voter turnout was always expected to be low but miserable weather across the country — with rain, strong winds and unseasonably cold weather — depressed it further. Many voters engaged in “tactical non-voting” in a bid to push the referendum under the 30 per cent threshold. They failed, however, withturnout reaching 32.2 per cent.
The potential implications of the Dutch vote on Britain’s EU referendum have been closely watched. For those campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, it will provide a sharp lesson in the necessity of making sure supporters turn up on polling day.
But campaigners for Brexit will take succour from the outcome of the referendum, which had spread from a specific focus on a 2,135-page trade deal with the Ukraine, into a far wider debate that touched on the Netherlands’ relationship with both Brussels and Moscow.
The results of the vote cam as a shock for Ukrainians. Two years ago many demonstrators in Kiev carried EU flags. The scores of protesters who were killed demonstrating in Kiev during the final stages of the revolution are widely seen in Ukraine as having died for “European values.”
The vote came about after a group of journalists at an anarchic website called GeenStijl, which styles itself as “tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive”, launched an attempt to secure the 300,000 signatures needed to call a referendum on the deal last summer.
Initially the Dutch government ignored the prospective referendum, partly in the hope that this would stop it from reaching the 30 per cent threshold but also to disassociate itself from any defeat.
In the final weeks of the campaign, however, senior ministers, including Mr Rutte, offered vocal support for the deal.
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kievfeweui