12 April 2016

Why the Dutch voted no to the EU-Ukraine agreement

By Adriel Kasonta

April 6th 2016 was a great day for democracy in Europe as the Netherlands were successfully holding a referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. This was only possible due to the approved legislation which came into force at the beginning of July 2015, allowing ‘advisory referendums’ on controversial topics if supporters can gather 300,000 signatures.

Thanks to a petition signed by over 450,000 people in a civil initiative introduced by the GeenPeil, Dutch citizens could make use of the democratic tool, which came to their aid in order to repeat what was already known from the results of the poll conducted by Dutch television program EenVandaag in January this year.

Despite the fact that the full official count won’t be published until today, after all votes are counted and reported by municipalities to national news agency ANP’s election service, it was reported that the turnout was over the minimum of 30 percent required for the vote to be valid, where 61.1 percent voters rejected the EU-Ukraine deal and 38.1 percent voted for it.

The referendum was of great importance to the nation, after it already rejected in 2005 the EU constitution, which was later adopted in an amended form without consulting voters.

Bart Nijman, founder of GeenStijl’s campaigning branch, said after the results were confirmed: “This is about the same ratio as the vote in the referendum on the European Constitution in 2005. Politicians will now really have to show that they are taking criticism of the EU from a large proportion of the Dutch seriously.” Nijman also emphasized before the referendum that “it’s supposed to be a warning to the EU that they suffer from a democratic deficit,” and explained his organisation “forced this referendum because they wanted people to have a say and more direct democracy.”

Obviously, as in most EU cases, the citizens’ will is at odds with the EU agenda. The highest officials are dissatisfied that the ordinary people dare to have their say and democratically reject a motion which has been agreed without their consent.

The Dutch people’s vote therefore exposes a huge dissatisfaction with the government, which holds EU Presidency in first half of 2016, and faces national elections scheduled for March 2017. The country’s officials are determined to please President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who in an interview for the NRC Handelsblad earlier this year warned the Dutch people that he does not “believe the Dutch will say no, because it would open the door to a big continental crisis,” and “Russia would pluck the fruits of an easy victory.”

It is probably even more saddening that their fellow countryman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who served as the 11th Secretary General of NATO from 5 January 2004 until 1 August 2009, has been repeating the very same rhetoric, saying: “It is of geopolitical importance to send a message to Vladimir Putin that he cannot continue to meddle.”

However, what even more unsettling in the case of Mr Scheffer (who is a Leiden Law School graduate) is his understanding of democracy. According to Wall Street Journal, he suggested that even if the majority of Dutch people vote “no”, the government and lawmakers should discuss the issue “and then tell voters: You have spoken but we don’t agree with you.”

Despite these discouraging voices, there are those in the Dutch public sphere who dare to disagree with such propaganda.

The best example is Thierry Baudet, a CEO of the Forum for Democracy think tank, who has been teaching Jurisprudence and Political Philosophy for over seven years at Leiden Law School, and most significantly published in 2012 a book titled “The Significance of Borders. Why Representative Government and the Rule of Law require Nation States.”

The 33-year-old bright lawyer from the Netherlands has enough courage to contend that the current situation in Ukraine “could easily have been prevented by completely different attitude and behaviour of the European Union,” and admits the sad fact that “we are not taking into account the reality of the economy there. Russia has blocked free trade with Ukraine as a consequence of the [association] agreement. The country is utterly divided … and the reforms we are going to get are largely paper reforms and in reality nothing will change.”

Baudet indeed is on point by saying the association agreement has divided and destabilized Ukraine and is a first step toward EU membership. This claim is denied by EU officials like European Commission President Juncker, who said in a speech at The Hague on March, 3 2016 that: “Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the EU in the next 20 to 25 years, and not of NATO either.”

Either this was a bad joke from Juncker’s side, which must have torn apart hearts of many Ukrainian citizens, or a deliberate lie is not for us to judge. But the fact is the EU has been ardently paving the way for visa-free travel to the bloc for Ukrainian citizens, while providing Kyiv with a generous $40 billion bailout to help it maintain economic stability. This suggests the complete opposite to what European Commission President is saying.

On that note, it is worthwhile mentioning that, despite the ‘No’ movement being accused of repeating Moscow’s arguments about Ukraine, Dutch opponents of the EU-Ukraine association agreement argued the bloc shouldn’t be dealing with Ukraine’s leadership because of the widespread corruption in the country. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2014 results, Ukraine is ranked 142 out of 174 countries, and the country showed little progress since the ousting of Yanukovich, with its perceived level of public sector corruption in 2014 unchanged from its level in 2012.

The fish rots from the head down, as they say, and it is definitely accurate in the case of Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko, a candy magnate who rose to power after former Ukrainian President refused to sign the association agreement, has been recently accused, following the massive leak of documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm known as the Panama Papers, of abusing his office and of tax evasion by moving his business offshore to the British Virgin Islands at the height of Ukraine’s war in 2014.

Therefore, before the United States and other Western powers urge Kiev’s leaders to stay united in order to pass reforms needed to secure a further $1.7 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund and keep its economy afloat, I am honour bound to evoke words of an adviser to Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, Donald Bowser, who said straight that “easily over a dozen billion US dollars a year” continue to be stolen from the Ukrainian state through corruption.

Browser also mentioned that much of the corruption stems from the Ukraine prosecutor general’s office, where the prosecutor general himself, Viktor Shokin – who was recently targeted in an assassination attempt – serves at the behest of President Petro Poroshenko.

This view is also shared by Vitaly Shabunin, the head of the board of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Centre, who claimed that Shokin “would never make this decision [to condone corruption] without the president’s will.”

The recently announced resignation of Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk shows the scale of political crisis in his country. And it is very likely that the current situation will further continue – Ukraine’s former economy minister Aivarus Abromavicius has also resigned, who just like Yatseniuk complained that officials had actively placed obstacles in his way, even alleging that members of President Poroshenko’s administration were blocking him in his way to reform “unreformed.”

Having said that, I would once again agree with Thierry Baudet, who has warned that “the agreement with Ukraine is a symptom of everything that is wrong with the EU,”adding on the eve of the vote “it is not good for the Netherlands, not good for Europe and not good for Ukraine.”

Indeed, this Ukrainian bone of contention is doing more harm than good to Europe by pitting European nations against each other, in a situation where those countries which disagree with arbitrarily set foreign policy towards Russia are being accused in the form of “the Bushian blackmail” by pro-EU pressure  actors, both in Europe and US, of supporting Putin.

While the European Union recently approved the extension of sanctions against Russia, there is no unity among EU club members on automatically prolonging economic sanctions on Russia’s banking, defense and energy sectors, which are due to expire on July 31 this year.

Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia are among the most skeptical countries about the policy of sanctions, as they perceive Russia as an important trade partner and reliable energy supplier. They are also heavily supported by European farmers, who learnt the outcome of Brussels reckless policy the hard way, and are repeatedly protesting against it.

With the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (boosted by the outcome in Netherlands), James Forsyth’s article for the Spectator titled “Project Fear: how Cameron plans to scare us into staying in the EU” should be highly revealing to the curious observer of the political scene in Britain. One thing is for sure: it will not be simple to exercise the constitutional right to vote according to conscience – bearing in mind the UK government’s effort to spend over £9m on sending a leaflet to every UK household setting out the case for remaining in the European Union (sponsored by the taxpayer).

As for the Netherlands, Laszlo Maracz, assistant professor of European studies at Amsterdam University, told RT: “The most important lesson that can be learnt from this referendum is that the European Union has lost its appeal to the common people. [It has shown that] it is not possible to mobilize [people] for a referendum, for a democratic event that has been organized by the EU and is closely connected to the EU. This shows that there is a democratic deficit in Europe.” America, the UK, and the rest of the developed world should carefully think over this before falling prey entirely to the EU’s dangerous blame game.

Adriel Kasonta is an Editorial Board Member at the Central European Journal for International and Security Studies, a Researcher on the Europe Desk at Wikistrat, Inc, and leading author of the Bow Group’s report titled “The Sanctions on Russia.”