Last week, Holland voted against an EU trade agreement that facilitates trade and cooperation between Ukraine and Europe. I’m often happy when the EU loses a referendum, something of a regular occurrence albeit usually without consequences, as Andrew Stuttaford notes.
In this case, there is no cause for joy. Ukraine faces an existential threat from Russia. The West has done little militarily to help. The least the EU can do is to cooperate more with Ukraine on trade. After all, Ukraine’s strong tilt towards Europe and away from Russia is a cause of, or at least a pretext for, Putin’s aggression.
Why did the Dutch reject the agreement? Anne Applebaum argues that both “the Dutch far-left and he Dutch far-right. . .used he vote to undermine a center-right, economically liberal government and to galvanize their anti-European followers.” She also blames Russian disinformation:
Many of the “no” campaign’s themes, headlines and even photographs were lifted directly from Russia Today and Sputnik, Russia’s state propaganda website. According to a poll cited by a Ukrainian foreign ministry official, 59 percent of those who voted against the treaty listed, as an important motivation, the fact that Ukraine is corrupt; 19 percent believed that Ukraine was responsible for the crash of MH-17, the plane that Russian separatists shot down over Ukraine in 2014; 34 percent believed that the treaty would guarantee Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.
Of those three points, the second two are certainly false. The first, while true, is hardly a rational argument against a treaty designed to reduce corruption in Ukraine.
It’s my understanding that Russia does, in fact, operate a powerful propaganda machine throughout Europe. However, I question whether Russia needed it for this vote.
Stuttaford, quoting Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe, views the Dutch vote on the Ukraine agreement “as a proxy for many Dutch citizens’ desire for a broader debate about the EU and the direction it is heading in.” With a full referendum on EU membership precluded by Dutch legislation, opponents of membership “needed a piece of EU legislation which was yet to come into force and upon which they could hang their broader concerns, this agreement seemed to fit the bill.”
Evidence that anti-EU sentiment fully explains last week’s vote is found in the fact that the tally was virtually the same as when, in 2005, the Dutch electorate voted to reject the EU constitution. 61.4 percent voted against the constitution; 61 percent voted to reject the Ukraine agreement. Furthermore, the geographic split was very much the same. (Turnout was much lower this time, however).
The 2005 vote didn’t block the EU constitution and this year’s vote is unlikely to block the agreement with Ukraine, which has been in effect since January. The referendum is non-binding and the prime minister’s party has said its stance on the agreement won’t change.
This stance may hurt the government’s political prospects in relation to Geert Wilders’ anti-EU formation Party for Freedom, which is already leading in the polls according to Cleppe. It will, however, help salvage the deal with Ukraine. This, it seems to me, is the optimal outcome.
Nonetheless, there’s a lesson in the Dutch vote, and Cleppe spells it out: EU overreach and lack of accountability has the potential to undermine legitimate objectives like promoting trade and strengthening the economies of nations staring down the barrel of Putin’s guns.
I don’t doubt that Putin put his propaganda machine to use in the Dutch vote on the Ukraine trade agreement. But the EU appears to have provided the most persuasive arguments in favor of voting no.