EU vows to support Ukraine after Dutch reject trade deal

‘As far as France and Germany, we will continue to support Ukraine,’ says Hollande

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte: Dutch voters rejected the trade deal by almost two to one. in Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte: Dutch voters rejected the trade deal by almost two to one. in Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

 

The European Union has pledged to continue its engagement with Ukraine, despite the decisive rejection of an EU-Ukraine association agreement by Dutch voters in Wednesday’s referendum.

Dutch voters rejected the trade deal by almost two to one in the country’s first referendum since its rejection of the EU constitution in 2005. The referendum was convened after a Eurosceptic group garnered the requisite number of signatures needed to force a referendum under a new law introduced last year.

Despite early suggestions that turnout would not reach the 30 per cent threshold needed to validate the referendum result, turnout was about 32 per cent, though a final result will not be announced until April 12th. While technically the ballot was non-binding, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said the government will take on board the result.

“My sense is that ratification can’t simply go ahead,” he said on Thursday, adding that this was dependent on the turnout being confirmed at above 30 per cent.

Speaking in the French town of Metz near the German border following a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday, French president Francois Hollande said that France and Germany would continue to support the agreement with Ukraine.

“As far as France and Germany, we will continue to support Ukraine and apply the association agreement in our respective countries,” he said.

The EU-Ukraine trade agreement was signed in March 2014, months after former president Viktor Yanukovych’s failed attempt to ratify the pact, sparking the Maidan protests in Kiev and prompting Russia’s incursion into east Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

Twenty-seven of the EU’s 28 member states have ratified the agreement which has been applied provisionally since January this year.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker spoke to Mr Rutte by phone on Wednesday night. Mr Juncker warned in January that a No vote in the Dutch referendum “would open the door to a great continental crisis”. Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, a spokesman for Mr Juncker said the commission chief was “sad” about the result of the referendum, but said it was up to the Dutch government to decide how to proceed.

While the EU institutions are likely to await a proposal from the Netherlands on some form of replacement pact over the next few weeks, the symbolic ramifications of the referendum outcome were being felt on Thursday.

Coming just two months before the British referendum on EU membership, the rejection of the EU-Ukraine deal was seized upon by Eurosceptics in Britain as proof of widespread public dissatisfaction with the EU.

Asked about the outcome of the Dutch vote, British prime minister David Cameron said there were no direct comparisons with the British referendum. “You have the most to gain by staying in a reformed European Union and you also have the most to lose if we leave,” he told an audience of students at the University of Exeter.

With polls showing that young people are most likely to vote to remain in the EU, but are less likely to vote than older citizens, Mr Cameron urged young people to exercise their right to vote on June 23rd . “This is probably the most important political decision of your lifetime,” he said, “Whatever you do, turn up and vote.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko promised that Ukraine would continue on its path to further EU engagement, despite the Dutch vote. But the billionaire president was facing criticism from some within the Ukrainian government who blamed him for the No vote.

The referendum took place just days after Mr Poroshenko was named in the Panama Papers leak for setting up an offshore company in 2014 at the height of the country’s tensions with Russia. Allegations of corruption in Ukraine were among the arguments made by No campaigners in the run-up to the Dutch vote.

The government in Kiev has been embroiled in political infighting in recent months, as the frozen conflict with Russia continues in the east of the country.