The Dutch independent committee Geenpeil collected over 450.000
signatures to compel the Dutch government to have a referendum for all Dutch
voters to vote in favour or against the EU-Ukraine free-trade agreement. What
has motivated 450.000 people enough to force a referendum from the government?
The free-trade agreement is an agreement between the European Union and Ukraine which will ensure political stability on the eastern borders of the EU (securing international and regional peace) and to stimulate economic cooperation between the EU and Ukraine. But the agreement is also meant to stimulate intensive cooperation between judicial authorities which will ensure security. Important points regarding the cooperation in the agreement are meant to strengthen the rule of law and respect fundamental rights and democracy.
The agreement, however, has already been signed by 22 member states in June, including the Netherlands and was supposed to come into effect this January, but the members of Geenpijl have now prevented this and delayed the process. This causes the Dutch government to await the advisory referendum on the 6th of April. Advisory because it is not a binding referendum. This means the government is allowed to ignore the outcome.
The signatures have all been collected because opponents are scared that the agreement will lead to a membership of Ukraine in the EU. According to opponents this is unacceptable and nondemocratic. They point to the instable economy and the political issues Ukraine is facing. Next to that, they state that the agreement will lead to an even worse bond with Russia. But the biggest issue for them is, of course, the fact that the agreement has already been signed without even the slightest input from Dutch citizens.
Chairman of the European Commission, Juncker, told NRC (a Dutch newspaper) in Amsterdam that a ‘no’ in the referendum could lead to a big crisis. He emphasizes that the referendum should not become a referendum about Europe in general and support the rise of populists in the EU. With Juncker, supporters of the treaty (including the Dutch prime minister) underscore the fact that it will favour the economy and stabilise the Eastern neighbourhood. Russia could benefit from a lack of the agreement. They would be encouraged to ‘win’ the Crimean civil war since Europe would show a lack of support towards Ukraine. Next to that the supporters say, the supposedly worse bond with Russia should be nuanced. A treaty between the EU and Ukraine doesn’t mean Ukraine can’t sign agreements or trade with Russia.
Back to the Dutch prime minister. He now holds the EU presidency and told the press in his speech on the 8th of January in Amsterdam that “People who are inclined to vote No think it’s a first step to EU membership. It has nothing to do with accession,”. Ten days after however, EU neighbourhood commissioner Hahn told the press that the European Commission is expected to file a proposal on visa-free travel between the EU and Ukraine and Georgia. This is expected to take place in the 1st quarter of 2016. So is there a legitimate reason for opponents to worry about a Ukrainian EU membership?
Probably not. According to the IMF, Ukraine will have an inflation of 46 percent and an economic decline of 9 percent. In the Eastern part of the country there is still a civil war going on and Ukraine is still a symbol of corruption (although the treaty is meant to improve this). They are simply not ready to be part of the EU. There still are way too many things that need to be reformed. This doesn’t mean the treaty isn’t a first step towards a European orientated policy. This is definitely something that is highly encouraged by supporters (read: Eastern stability) and feared by opponents (worse bond with Russia).
Whether the yes or the no voters are right, the creation of a free trade zone will take years. It takes a lot of time to change the rules of business and to introduce new standards. It is expected to take at least 15 years before the treaty is fully implemented. It will take a long time before we know who was right.
The sad thing about the entire discussion is the fact that Ukraine has to choose between the EU or Russia. Without either one of them they are lost. There is nothing left of the independent country and their economy. It is now up to the Dutch voter to choose if Ukraine should be EU focussed (voting yes) or Russia focussed (voting no). Maybe focussing on the EU is not a first step towards a membership, but one towards a new independent Ukraine.