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This blog provides an overview of the origins and implications of Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

The EU-Ukraine association agreement provisionally came into effect on 1 January 2016, but it must be ratified by all 28 EU Members States before it can be fully implemented. Ireland was the 14th EU country to ratify the Association Agreement with Ukraine in January 2015, and the first to put the agreement to an open parliamentary vote. The Netherlands is now the only Member State whose ratification of the agreement is outstanding. Although the Dutch parliament and senate had already backed the agreement, which includes the establishment of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), a citizens’ initiative supported by 427,000 Dutch nationals has called for a consultative referendum on whether or not the Netherlands should indeed ratify the agreement.

The initiative is the first of its kind since the introduction of the Dutch Advisory Referendum Act on 1 July 2015. According to this Act, citizens may initiate a referendum on most laws and treaties after they have been approved by both chambers of parliament. According to Peter van Elsuwege, Professor of European Union law at Ghent University, the referendum may be seen as “an experiment with direct democracy giving the Dutch citizens a possibility to refute decisions taken at the political level.”[1]

Wednesday, 6 April 2016, has been designated as the date for a referendum on the Agreement forging closer ties between the EU and Ukraine. Dutch citizens will be asked: ‘Are you in favour or against the law that approves the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine?’. Analysts have warned that the vote is in danger of digressing from the topic of Ukraine and becoming a plebiscite on EU membership, refugees coming into Europe, and general confidence in the current government. Pieter Cleppe, Head of the Open Europe Brussels Office, wrote in September 2015 that the referendum is not really about Ukraine, rather it “should first and foremost be seen as a proxy for many Dutch citizens’ desire for a broader debate about the EU and the direction it is heading in.”[2]

Those in favour of ratification say the aim of the Association Agreement is closer political and economic co-operation between Brussels and Kyiv. The ‘No’ campaign has embraced a broader spectrum of citizens’ fears about the future of the European Union. Some believe that closer association could be a seen as step towards EU membership for Ukraine, which could cost EU taxpayers billions of euro. They argue that EU “expansionism” creates a doubly negative situation, whereby it costs Member States a significant amount of money, while simultaneously weakening the voices of individual Member States as the community grows. Other actors on the ‘No’ side argue that closer association with Ukraine would put the EU on a collision course with Moscow, because of Ukraine’s troubled relationship with Russia. The migration issue and indeed the British referendum on its EU membership have also helped to fuel the ‘No’ campaign.

In an interview with NRC Handelsblad, Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker urged Dutch citizens not to “change the referendum into a vote about Europe”. He further emphasized that Dutch voters should not vote ‘No’ “for reasons that have nothing to do with the treaty itself.” An opinion poll carried out on 7 February 2016 indicated that 60% of those surveyed were against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and intend to vote ‘No’ in April.[3] As the referendum is only consultative, a ‘No’ vote will have political implications rather than legal consequences. In particular, a ‘No’ vote could have problematic consequences for Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal-Labour coalition government as it could be interpreted, as a lack of popular support for the government and an example of the rise in support for populist and Eurosceptic parties ahead of national elections due in 2017.

The refusal to ratify the Agreement during the Dutch Council Presidency could be seen as symbolic of the changing attitudes of Member States towards the EU and neighbouring countries, particularly considering that it was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, holding the Presidency of the EU in 1991, who officially recognised Ukrainian independence on behalf of the European Union, and first established EU-Ukraine relations.

One of the central themes of the Dutch EU presidency is to foster greater citizen involvement in the EU. The invocation of a citizens’ initiative under the Advisory Referendum Act is an striking example of citizen engagement and a test of direct democracy. A ‘No’ vote in the referendum could create a new conundrum for the incumbent Council Presidency as to how to connect citizens to a polity with which they find themselves disenchanted.