“If we vote ‘No’ we would basically abandon the people of Ukraine, we should not do that,” A small group of people passionately argue on the square facing the Dutch parliament in The Hague. It is an unusually cold Monday night beneath the statue of William of Orange. The protesters are discussing a country to which none of them has ever been. Two young men try to convince an older man that he should not vote “yes” in the upcoming referendum, as this would provoke Putin and that Ukraine should solve its own problems with corruption before seeking closer ties with the European Union. These arguments can be read in any Dutch newspaper, in addition to daily stories about Ukraine and its politics.
On April 6th the Netherlands will hold an advisory referendum on whether or not it should ratify the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. This is made possible by the new “referendum law” which makes it possible for Dutch citizens to trigger a referendum on laws approved by their parliament. Last year a loose coalition of activist groups and think tanks collected enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the Association Agreement. But what motivates Dutch people to spend their free time campaigning against or in favour of this agreement?
Entrepreneur Pim Wijnakker is one of the younger men on the square arguing against the agreement. In his hands he carries a staple of flyers printed by “Citizens Committee Netherlands”, an activist group critical of the European Union. He sees this referendum as an opportunity for the Dutch people to make their voice heard.
“Now that we have this law we want to use it. That is the most important thing. We have the feeling that we vote every four years, after which our politicians do whatever they please,” he argues over a beer. “The European Union is becoming a cumbersome apparatus, which has expanded much too far. We want to call it to a halt and say ‘no’ to further EU expansionism and against political, financial and especially military co-operation with Ukraine.”
The ‘No’ campaign is supported at the same time by the Dutch far right and far left, together with several think tanks and prominent personalities, with a varying shade of Euroscepticism being the sole common factor. One criticism often heard is that people voting ‘No’ will do so in protest against the EU and the Dutch government, with Ukraine being “collateral damage”. Pim disagrees and argues that despite the treaty being mostly about trade, the provisions about security are of great concern to many of his countrymen.
“They say they don’t want to bother Putin. Ukraine is at war and I do not want a direct or indirect war with Russia,” he elaborates. “Ukraine is a bankrupt country living on gifts coming from Europe. We do not want to work with a corrupt state. They should tackle their corruption internally. Right now we just throw money at them and hope that it will solve the problems with corruption. I’ve got nothing against Ukrainians or their country; this is just an incorrect policy.”
Many Dutch people with links to Ukraine are tirelessly campaigning to convince people to vote in favour of this agreement. One of them is Beja Kluiters-Abers, the chairwoman of the Sputnik Foundation, which has been providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine for over 24 years. Her mother-in-law, who is Ukrainian, was forcibly put to work in Germany during the Second World War and came to the Netherlands after liberation. Kluiters-Abers has been approaching people on the street and noticed that people know very little about the referendum. Together with her foundation she is trying to inform about Ukraine and its history.
“People think this treaty means that Ukraine will rapidly become a member of the European Union, which is certainly not the case in the coming 20 years. In fact Ukrainians will still need visas to work here, they will not take any jobs from Dutch people” she argues. “Certainly there is corruption but people are really working hard on fighting it. The Association Agreement is an opportunity for Ukraine. The European Union can help give the country a better structure, help fight corruption and improve the position of homosexuals in Ukrainian society.”
The Netherlands is a nation built on trade and it is therefore no surprise that the practical advantages of the Association Agreement for businesses are frequently underlined by the “Yes” campaign. The business community, which is campaigning in favour of the agreement, is often reminding people that the Netherlands is the third largest European investor in Ukraine.
“Agriculture forms a great opportunity; the Ukrainian soil is very fertile and does not require synthetic fertilizers, everything just grows better and also tastes better. The same thing is with meat, fruit and vegetables,” says Kluiters-Abers. “A ‘No’ vote would have a negative impact on the Dutch economy. For example, large amounts of potatoes are exported to Ukraine, over which import duties will then have to be paid. They will be too expensive and Holland could lose a market.”
With the referendum rapidly approaching the campaign is steadily picking up speed. Increasingly Dutch citizens find flyers in their postbox next to their newspapers and as people are cycling to work they see more and more posters encouraging them to vote. Subsidies have been granted to both sides of the campaign. This money has been used for some rather unusual campaign material, such as rolls of toilet paper with arguments against the Association Agreement or a top-down shooter videogame, where the player has to shoot from a helicopter at Russian soldiers on Crimea while at the same time negotiating with the European Union.
The ‘No’ campaign seems to have the biggest grassroots support so far and has cleverly made use of social media to organise activists and get people together to distribute campaign material. On the other hand, the ‘Yes’ campaign has also been very active on the internet, buying advertising time on YouTube to show videos of Ukrainians making the case for the Association Agreement. Much of the ‘Yes’ campaign is appealing to a sense of European solidarity with Ukraine.
Many events are organised to inform the Dutch public about Ukraine and its recent history. Ukrainian politicians, such as Vitali Klitschko, have travelled to Holland and participated in talk shows. The Ukrainian diaspora in the Netherlands, through its different organisations, has also gotten involved by giving lectures and free screenings of documentaries about the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Aline Cherkas is a Ukrainian student from Lviv who current lives in the Netherlands where she studies international relations. Tonight she is attending an event co-organised by the Ukrainian diaspora in the Netherlands, where Ukrainian MP Sergii Leshchenko is speaking about the fight against corruption. Alina hopes that the Dutch people will vote “Yes” on April 6th and believes the key to this is to help people inform the Dutch about her country.
“Unfortunately the Dutch people do not have enough information about Ukraine They know about the revolution but not about the war and the reforms which have happened since,” she explains. “When I talk with people they ask me questions about Ukraine, and they are often very surprised – in a positive sense. Ukrainians have decided they want to be more like other European countries and we had to fight for this Association Agreement.”
At least 30 per cent of the Dutch voters have to cast their vote in order for the referendum to be valid. Recent polls show that it is likely that this threshold will be met. The gap between the “Yes” and “No” vote is narrowing and it looks to be a tight race. Even if the “No” wins, the government is under no obligation to follow the advice of the Dutch people. However, this may come at a high electoral cost for the governing parties in the next election.
Without the Dutch parliament’s approval, the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine cannot come into effect. Not only Ukraine, but also the European Union would then have to deal with a Dutch spanner in the works.
Lucas Goetz is a French journalist and video editor currently based in the Netherlands. He frequently covers Eastern Europe.