A guest post by Elitsa Kortenska:
Since 6 April 2016 when a consultative referendum in the Netherlands on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine resulted in 61 percent votes against it and 38 percent in favour, ratification is on hold. The Netherlands was the last member state whose ratification was needed for its entry into force. Since April, the government and the Prime Minister have postponed decision to withdraw Dutch support for the Agreement several times. In the last couple of months, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has intensified his efforts in Brussels and in the Netherlands to resolve the problem. He stated repeatedly that the failure to ratify the Agreement would be a ‘massive mistake’ for the Netherlands, as POLITICO reported.
In October Rutte attempted to persuade political parties (see his official letter sent to Parliament) to rally around and ratify it despite the referendum results. The forthcoming elections are making this a politically risky proposition especially with the initiators of the referendum Baudet and Jan Roos both going into politics with political formations on the right, aiming seats in parliament. Meanwhile, in an interview for a Dutch radio, former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans urged political parties to give a green light to the Agreement and referred to the consultative nature of the referendum. Emphasizing the risk of instability in the region at the event of non-ratification, Timmermans said ‘we should not offer presents to Putin’. Yet the fate of Agreement remains uncertain due to the unwillingness of the Dutch second and first chamber to appear to dismiss the popular vote with national elections around the corner.
Earlier in October, Ukrainian officials, parliament members and civil society tried to argue the case for ratification and discussed the dynamics linked to it at a symposium, organized by the newly launched Netherlands-Ukraine Society. Speakers highlighted the paramount importance of the Treaty for the Ukraine domestic political and economic transformation. From the perspective of the seven Ukrainian students, who had led a six-day ‘For’ campaign just before the referendum date, the negative result meant a need for more initiatives presenting a positive image of the ongoing transformation in ‘new’ Ukraine and AA-related reforms.
Ukrainian politicians and civil society members present at the event warned about the negative implications of failure of the Agreement. While Dutch citizens’ concerns and the ‘No’ vote must be taken seriously and addressed, according to Taras Kachka this could be achieved without renegotiating or changing the provisions of the Agreement. Since a number of the Treaty provisions have already been enforced, he hoped that that the Dutch ‘No’ would not ‘kill’ the Treaty. ‘The Agreement is not merely a technical tool for integration for Ukraine, but it symbolizes enormous changes in Ukrainian political culture and society’ he argued.
Enforcement of the treaty provisions has achieved progress in important areas of reform: rule of law and market liberalization, but those have not reached a ‘point of no return’, civil society representatives argued. The Reanimation Reform Package (RRP) for Ukraine is a clear example of Ukrainian civil society engagement in the reform process. Olena Halushka, RRP representative, said: ‘the Maidan is the real evidence that signing the AA was not a political decision taken top-down’, but a result of citizens’ desire for transformation in Ukraine and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’. Reforms and their enforcement are not irreversible, Halushka warned and emphasized that the political will for adopting and implementing reforms depends on full enforcement of AA provisions and the synergy between civil society and external EU pressure.
Parliamentarians Serhiy Kiral (Samopomich Union) and Vladyslav Golub (Petro Poroschenko Bloc) stressed political and financial support through the AA is key for maintaining political consensus on reforms domestically. Uncertainty over the Dutch decision has weakened the EU’s commitment to the Agreement, while the on-going Russian information war, propaganda and aggression in Ukraine renders non-ratification extremely risky for domestic reform process, they argued.
While the Dutch ‘No’ cannot be simply disregarded, the implications of the failure of the Treaty could have more negative consequences for EU, the Netherlands and Ukraine than public is aware. According to the symposium speakers, one way to resolve the problem within the Netherlands is through broader public debate, information and communication on the economic benefits of the Treaty for the Netherlands It remains to be seen whether it is already too late for this, in terms of ratification. A decision from Dutch parliament is yet to come, but the delay already costs the EU some credibility, affects political commitment for reforms in Ukraine and potentially contributes to further political deadlock.