Dutch Ukraine vote tests strength of anti-EU mood

World Wednesday 06/April/2016 16:44 PM
By: Times News Service
Dutch Ukraine vote tests strength of anti-EU mood

Amsterdam: Dutch voters cast ballots in a referendum on Wednesday on the European Union's treaty with Ukraine, providing a gauge of anti-EU sentiment weeks before Britain puts its membership of the bloc on the line.
Launched by eurosceptic groups, the referendum -- whose result is not binding on the government -- is the first since a 2015 law made it possible to force through plebiscites by gathering 300,000 signatures on the Internet.
While the scope of a ballot expected to deliver a "No" vote is limited to a treaty to bring Ukraine and the EU closer, Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged on Wednesday that some viewed it as a proxy for a broader debate on the way the bloc is being run.
"It's not about accession to the European Union, as some of the 'against' voters are saying," he told journalists after casting his vote. "It's not about collective defence, it is not about new money, it's not about free movement of employees."
With one pollster saying turnout for the ballot looked likely to drop below the minimum validity threshold, populist eurosceptic leader Geert Wilders urged voters to send a message to Europe by saying "No".
"I think many Dutchmen are fed up with more European Union and this treaty with Ukraine that is... not in the interests of the Dutch people," he told journalists.
"I hope that later, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, other countries will follow."
Whatever voters' motivation, a clear vote against the treaty in the run-up to Britain's June 23 referendum on whether to quit the EU could escalate into a domestic or even a Europe-wide political crisis.
Dutch leaders say voting against the treaty would also hand a symbolic victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are widely accused of bringing down an airliner in 2014 with the loss of almost 200 Dutch lives.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Russia was "following news" on the referendum but had no recommendation for Dutch voters.
It is unclear if anti-Russian sentiment will sway voters nearly two years on, but increasing resentment among the Dutch at the consequences of the EU's open-border policies has propelled Wilders to the top of public opinion polls.
The ballot also taps in to a more deep-seated anti-establishment sentiment highlighted by a resounding rejection in 2005 of a European Union constitution, also in a referendum.
The "No" camp is also forecast to win Wednesday's vote, with the first exit polls expected immediately after polling stations close at 1900GMT.
Pollsters had expected turnout to be low, however, hovering around the 30 per cent minimum needed for a valid result, with many questioning the value of expressing an opinion about a document that has already provisionally gone into effect with the approval of the other 27 EU states.
"I am going to vote, but I don't know what yet," said Jim Sprenger, a gym teacher in Amsterdam. "I don't feel very well informed, but the fact that the outcome may be ignored makes me want to vote 'No'."
Pollster Maurice de Hond told Reuters that, based on data from major municipalities by 1100GMT, final turnout was likely to be between 25 and 30 per cent.
"It's impossible to know for certain, but the more it looks like the result will be invalid, the more people who usually vote late in the day may decide not to bother," he said.
If the referendum result is not valid, or the "Yes" vote wins, the process is likely to be written off.
In parliament, Rutte's conservative VVD party has said it would ignore a narrow "no" vote, while junior coalition partner Labour has said it would honour it, setting the stage for a split.
"It's an advisory referendum, so the only thing the law requires is that we reconsider it," Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Tuesday.
But ignoring a clear "No" would be risky for Rutte's already unpopular government -- which has lost further ground over Europe's refugee debate -- ahead of national elections scheduled no later than March 2017.
While a collapse of Rutte's coalition seems more likely, the Dutch cabinet could in theory use an overwhelming "No" to ask the EU to reopen negotiations with Ukraine.
In that event, officials and diplomats in Brussels say, there are a number of ways in which the Ukraine agreement can be reworked to ensure the bulk of it, already being implemented, remains in force.