Dutch No Vote on EU-Ukraine Association Agreement Reflects Anti-EU Sentiment

In a referendum, the Dutch people have voted against the EU-Ukraine Association agreement. The goal of this agreement was to get the Ukraine to accept judicial, financial and political reforms that make the country more conform to EU standards. For instance, the EU would be able to dispatch judicial advisers to the Ukraine to enforce labor or business laws. The Ukraine would also be required to modernize their energy infrastructure, and they would become eligible for European Investment Bank loans. Visa restrictions on travel would be reduced.

Most importantly, the Association agreement contains a free trade treaty between the EU and Ukraine, which would essentially allow EU countries to flood the Ukrainian market with their goods. The Ukrainian government will sell the free trade agreement as allowing Ukrainian industries to export their goods to the EU. But their export profile is heavily reliant on iron ore and wheat (Atlas MIT), which won’t get them sufficient leverage against French or German companies, who export finished goods.

There might still be a merit for the Ukraine to agree to the Association agreement even if it came at some cost to them, because they certainly need a strong economic partner to their west, when the Russians have severed their energy and trade ties with the Ukraine. For the country to survive, it means either to lean closer to the eastern Russians or to the western Europeans. Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, is clearly pro-western, and has to bank his political capital on the rapproachment with the EU.

It is all the more irritating for him to now see the Dutch people, who don’t seem to have that much of a direct stake oi this agreement, vote down this agreement, which means so much to his country. A foreign ministry official in Kiev said that he found it disappointing that the Euroskeptic sentiment of the Dutch public is reflected on this Association agreement (BBC 2016). The numbers bear out this suspicion, because even though 61% voted against the agreement in the referendum, only 32% of the voters participated in it. This implies that only the most politically mobilized people bothered to vote in the referendum, and the Euroskeptics (better “EU skeptics”) are certainly much more and better organized than the Europhiles  (better “EU philes”).

I also do not find it plausible that the Dutch voters were particularly concerned about their Ukrainian brothers and sisters, and how they would be screwed with this agreement. I would also argue that the no vote in the Netherlands reflects the Euroskeptic sentiment that not only exists there, but in many European countries. It is simply that the 27 other national governments decided not to allow their people to speak directly on this issue for fear of the same results that we have not seen this Euroskeptic sentiment expressed elsewhere. It is, therefore, justifiable to analyze the no vote in terms of the Euroskeptic sentiment. Do the Euroskeptics have a good case on their hand? Yes, I think so.

Before someone condemns the Dutch voters for voting against an agreement that is not directly related to Europe as such, the same way as the British EU referendum is, we should acknowledge that there are not many other ways for Dutch or any other European voters to make their discontent with EU policies and politics heard. So any proposal that the EU officials put forward is eyed with general voter suspicion. I think the Dutch voters are right to hold the EU leaders accountable by voting against this agreement.

But what is the case that Euroskeptics can really make? It should first be noted that being a Euroskeptic does not mean being against Europe. People certainly do enjoy the freedom to travel, live and work anywhere within the 28 member states. They certainly also relish the general peace, which has prevailed since 1945, and would have been unlikely without the EU. But people are fed up about a political and economic structure that is not accountable to them and their interests. The lack of accountability can be measured on three vital issues: currency, refugees and economic/ social policy in general. It is to be feared that the lack of accountability to the public will continue as long as the EU institutions remain too weak to dispense with sovereign power.

Six years on from the economic crash in Greece (which is continuing to the present), we have seen yet again that EU leaders offer no real solutions to the Eurozone crisis. They still continue with the “extend and pretend” option, whereby the EU continues to subsidize Greek loans, which Greece will never be able to repay given the EU’s insistent focus on austerity. Rather than canceling debts, breaking up the Eurozone or concentrating fiscal powers in Brussels (e.g. via Eurobonds), the EU leaders prefer to apply bandaid solutions, which make the lives of Europeans more miserable.

The refugee crisis fell on the unfortunate laps of the Europeans for which they were partly responsible, because they backed the US invasion in Iraq, which resulted in sectarian violence, civil war and the rise of the Islamic state, which spread to neighboring Syria, from which most of the refugees come from. Leaving the cause of the refugee crisis aside, one needs to reflect on the EU’s poor handling of it. During the first months of the crisis, when Turkey lifted the restrictions for onward travel to Greece and the EU, German chancellor, Angela Merkel, still spoke of the “welcoming culture” of Germany, and that they can easily absorb many refugees fleeing from the war.

But this strategy backfired as the number of refugees kept on swelling to more than a million in Germany, over 90,000 in neighboring Austria and 160,000 in Sweden. Sweden restricted border access between Malmo and Copenhagen. Austria then convened a Balkan conference in February, where they mutually agreed to shut the border to Greece, and no longer allow refugees to pass through. (There probably even was a bribe from Vienna, but I can’t confirm this.) Now we see dramatic scenes in Idomene, on the Greek-Macedonian border, where Macedonian police use teargas and stun grenades to stop more refugees from going north. Germany publicly condemns Austrian unilateralism, but is in reality quite grateful for the harsh border policies in southeastern Europe, as it relieves refugee pressure on Germany, which is still badly shaken from the Cologne incident around New Year, when a group of refugees molested German women on the streets.

But the question in all this is where was the EU? Here the EU clearly lacks sovereign power to do anything, and even the powerful countries like France and Germany don’t have much to say. Germany, Austria and Sweden want a “fair” distribution of refugees, which requires an EU agreement. But EU agreement is based on the unanimity principle, which means that all EU countries have to agree. The Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia) are vehemently opposed to taking on any refugees. The UK being outside of Schengen only wants to take as many (or as little) as they feel like. The French might take more, but most refugees aren’t going there. Of course, the preferences of the refugees also shapes where many refugees will end up in, but that makes EU agreement on a fair distribution even more important. Germany knows that it needs to a EU wide solution quickly, because the right-wing AfD is making headwinds in regional elections, which cost the SPD and CDU many seats.

The EU finally did get an agreement, but not with the distribution of refugees inside the EU, but with keeping them out by convincing Turkey to keep the refugees in exchange for 6 billion euros and EU visa free travel for Turkish nationals. While I am generally in favor of the agreement, I see it as no more than another bandaid solution, which can be torn apart if the moody president Erdogan decides to change his mind.

In the mean time, the damage is already done. Europeans, who already are shafted by the misguided social and economic policies of their governments (austerity, bank bailout, failure of public investment, high unemployment, deficit reduction), now feel threatened by the newcoming refugees, and will blame them for the lack of jobs and affordable housing. A return of nationalist sentiment that gets exploited by right-wing parties will merely accelerate the decline of the European Union, which has just seen its first serious test with the relatively “harmless” Dutch referendum (which is not even legally binding, even though the Dutch government promised to “consider” the referendum results). The next serious test is the UK referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU. If Britain leaves, then this could be the beginning of the end of the EU project. If Britain stays, EU officials bought themselves some extra time before the next referendum comes along. The EU needs reform if it wants to continue to legitimately exist.

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