Central and Eastern Europe, Public opinion, the Netherlands, Ukraine

Ukrainians trying (again) to argue against the Dutch ‘No’ while ratification remains uncertain

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.

Academic research on the EU, Enlargement, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, the Netherlands

The contradictions of the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine

As the day of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands on the Association agreement with Ukraine nears, the bulk of the commentary seems to focus on the campaign, its trends and its context rather than the referendum question and the agreement it addresses. There have been lots of commentaries focusing on the geopolitics of the referendum, evaluating Russia’s possible attitude or role, as for example this recent piece  assessing a potential ‘no’ vote as a symbolic victory for Russia. Many analysts note the passive stance taken by the Dutch government and political parties of the government coalition who, after all, participated in the negotiations of the agreement that started all the way back in 2008. In a highly critical post, Judy Dempsey denounces the lackluster campaign by Dutch and European politicians and the lack of visible commitment to the  treaty and the values it embodies (rather than just trade) by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte himself. In terms of the implications of the referendum results, there is little agreement on the significance of a potential ‘no’ vote. Some, consider the whole exercise to be meaningless, as given the advisory nature of the referendum, the government could ignore the results if they are negative.This post by Korteweg provides an overview of recent history of both the agreement and the Dutch referendum and of potential scenarios after the referendum.

Yet, as Kristof Jacobs pointed out in the SRV blog and also in a debate we held yesterday, the political consequences of ignoring a possible ‘no’ vote would be much wider  and harder to ignore than the legal ones. Both domestic and international consequences could be quite broad and far reaching. At least one of the government coalition parties, the Social Democrats, has committed to respecting the outcome of the referendum. Changing the wording of the Association agreement to satisfy the Dutch voters would also be quite problematic: in a total of 486 articles and 179 pages without the annexes, identifying which bits would have been found objectionable by Dutch votes in case of a ‘no’ majority would be difficult. The EU’s credibility in other international settings and policies, such as the revised European Neighborhood Policy or even ongoing enlargement process with the Western Balkans, would be compromised.

If we accept that future accessions or associations will become more and more politicized, as found in our enlargement assessment project maxcap (see here), we should try to take the question of the referendum seriously and evaluate, to the best of our current knowledge, what effects the Association agreement might have. Given its scope and the fact that establishing a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area is quite a novel enterprise, as shown in this legal analysis, effects are difficult to estimate ex ante. The political reform provisions in the treaty, however, are both far-reaching and promising, in the clear commitment to domestic reforms in Ukraine (art 6), extensive requirements for transparency and the planned involvement of civil society (articles 299, 443). All other things being equal (which is not a given in Ukraine’s neighbourhood), the Agreement will provide both a roadmap and a set of incentives for reforms in democratic governance, as the EU has done in the past for countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia. It will be up to Ukrainian policy makers and politicians to take this opportunity. Yet rejecting the treaty by means of a negative vote in the Netherlands, or letting it exist in some kind of legal and political limbo while the Dutch government decides how to react to a potential negative result, would sap what energy and determination exist for reforms in Ukraine. So paradoxically, if we assume that at least some of the initiators of the Dutch referendum care about democracy and citizens, their democratic impulse might kill the attempts to make democracy mean something in Ukraine. This would be a strange outcome indeed.

 

Enlargement, Uncategorized

Time for domestic political debate on future EU enlargement

As Dutch media announced this week, a first opinion poll conducted by a public TV programme EenVandaag showed that a majority of Dutch citizens may vote against the Association agreement with Ukraine in the referendum planned for 6 April 2016. Our colleague Joop van Holsteyn, special professor in electoral research at Leiden University, has warned that it cannot be established how representative the EenVandaag polls are, as they are based on a self-selected panel of citizens. Yet he also stressed that the results suggest the 30 per cent threshold for the validity of the results of the referendum would be easily reached based on these first results. As he also noted the government has so far allocated meagre funds for campaigning, likely with the idea that citizens would not come out and vote.

This attitude by Dutch politicians, if this is indeed the government’s campaign plan, brings uncomfortable memories of their approach to the Constitutional treaty referendum, for which campaigning was both short and uninspired. We all know how this ended up.

Commission President Juncker appeared to advocate for a more pro-active approach, Juncker suggesting in an interview for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper that the government should defend the agreement they have signed. He warned that a Europe-wide crisis could be precipitated by a Dutch ‘no’ in the advisory referendum.

The arguments for the Association agreement need to be put clearly on the table and some of the myths spread by the initiators should be discussed openly. Contrary to what the initiators of the referendum have claimed, the agreement does not open the door to Ukrainian EU membership in the short or even medium term. As we have argued here, the EU has been very careful to leave relations with Ukraine open-ended. The initiators also claim that the treaty will lead to the provision of millions of financial assistance to Ukraine. They set the question of rejecting it as an issue of national identity and sovereignty, as well as material interest. As we know from public opinion analyses in Europe, perceived material interests and identity are the most important determinants of public opinion trends. So the initiators of the referendum and their arguments should be taken seriously, despite their selective approach to the facts. A rational presentation of counter-arguments may not suffice. For those of us who see the Association agreement as a useful tool for supporting much needed reforms in Ukraine, need to discuss the implications for stability and security in Europe and also the Netherlands (including migration) in case the agreement is rejected.

Furthermore, the broader implications of the politicisation of the ratification of the agreement should be considered. The EU – and the Netherlands , in the Council of Ministers -is negotiating with a number of Western Balkan candidates for membership. In mid-December 2015, the EU opened the first two chapters of negotiations with Serbia, marking some real progress after a year of stagnation. Serbs see this as a historic step, an achievement they have reached, paid for with difficult compromises over Kosovo. The opening of the next two chapters, 23 and 24: on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Justice, Freedom and Security, is expected to take place in the first half of 2016.

The EU’s influence on Serbian foreign policy, however, is precarious and seen by many to depend on further progress in accession negotiations. As our research in discourses on EU membership in Serbia has shown, many Serb citizens see relations with Kosovo as the most painful step their country has to take on the road to membership. The high domestic cost of concessions on Kosovo means that Serbian leaders may not be able to maintain commitment to reforms for a very long period of time. Therefore, they have set for themselves the ambitious goal to be ready for membership in 2020.

Back to the Dutch referendum and its implications for this process: if the Association agreement is rejected  – not for legal, but for political reasons some Dutch political parties may follow a negative referendum result – EU’s conditionality in enlargement would be much less credible. Serbia and other current candidates may, with good reason, ask themselves whether they are willing to pay the cost of adjusting to the EU when their accession could be put on hold in a similar referendum in the future. After all, accession treaties still require unanimity to come into force. Another good reason for Dutch political parties to campaign vigorously in the current referendum – and for the government to inform its citizens more regularly of progress and decisions reached in enlargement negotiations.

 

 

Uncategorized

The ‘reporting revolution’ in enlargement reports: will it help overcome ‘enlargement fatigue’?

The European Commission released its updated strategy and reports on the progress of candidate and aspiring states from the Western Balkans on 10 November 2015. The considerable changes in approach and even language of the reports amount to what the European Stability Initiative newsletter has called ‘a reporting revolution’. The strategy and reports aim to make comparisons between aspiring, candidate and negotiating states much easier and to give the process of enlargement, allegedly mired in ‘enlargement fatigue’, a new impetus.

First impressions are that the reports, one of the key monitoring and reform tools of enlargement policy goes, are indeed changed and much improved. The language of the reports is clearer, the recommendations more specific and it is much easier to judge at a glance whether a country has made progress or not and how it compares to others.

The priorities and focus on certain areas of reform appear to have shifted further away from the EU acquis and to fundamental political institutional and economic  problems which citizens of the countries assessed would recognize as important. Rule of law, freedom of expression, the work of national parliaments and public administration reform are highlighted as key areas to be addressed for all candidates. Economic governance and competitiveness, as well as tackling unemployment are identified as serious challenges for all candidate countries, except Turkey. The refugee crisis and the imperative it creates for cooperation in the region is explicitly and clearly mentioned. In this way, this year’s reports address and incorporate much of earlier criticism concerning their lack of clarity and focus on acquis chapters relevant for the distant future instead of the real problems of the countries they monitor. By identifying and pointing clearly to the most important problems and challenges candidates face, the reports – and the Commission – aim to support mobilisation for reform, as it worked in the past with previous enlargement rounds of 2004-2007.

The main source of inertia for enlargement policy however cannot be eliminated by this improvement and this is arguably the member states. Governments in the existing member states need to be convinced it is worth spending political capital in discussing enlargement in national political debates and in actually making the case in favour of the Western Balkans. Having clear and objective reports, as much as this is possible, helps to make the case that certain countries have made more progress than others. But it is to the member states and their political elites to make the choice to move enlargement towards the front of their political agenda. Germany’s experience with migrants from the region will certainly bring more heated debates there and give enlargement policy more prominence, which is also recognized by the initiatives taken under the so called ‘Berlin’ process. But in the Netherlands next door, politicians and media respond to the reports with a deafening silence, even though Dutch policy makers must recognize that they need to engage in the region to share information and make policy in the current refugee and migration crisis that affects the Western Balkans and Western Europe alike. A more pro-active enlargement policy should provide an excellent forum to discuss these issues, as it had done in the past. To have the citizens on board, however, politicians should consider telling the public that the enlargement policy and process is a way to make sustainable policies involving their Western Balkan neighbours, also on migration, at a time when coordinated action is desperately needed.

Uncategorized

After the Eastern Partnership summit: Time to look away from geopolitics

The Eastern Partnership summit that took place in Latvia’s capital Riga on 21-22 May this year was evaluated by commentators as somewhere on the range between ‘lacking new momentum‘ to ‘disastrous’. The cautious approach by the EU is explained by many with the desire not to provoke new action by Russia with declarations about Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia’s European destiny and the need to allow the fragile Minsk II peace to take hold. Not only are Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia far from receiving the much desired EU membership perspective, the symbolic commitment from the EU to take them as members when they would fulfill its criteria for membership, but the expected visa liberalization decision for Ukraine has not materialized either. The language of the final declaration, reportedly the result of an uneasy compromise with Belarus and Armenia (on how to refer to the Crimea) is firm but non-committal.

In the wake of this disappointing summit, it is too easy, but also misleading to see the relations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the three Eastern Partnership states seeking closer ties with the EU, through a geopolitical lens only. Coming closer to the EU has always been about domestic reforms to fulfill technical requirements and harmonize with the acquis. It is now forgotten that Central and Eastern European states which are now EU members had to work to adapt to the commitments undertaken in their Association agreements before they received a membership perspective. Even as they negotiated for membership, CEE leaders knew the reforms they undertook were a modernization tool, as an end in themselves and not only something to do because the EU wanted it. While not all of the acquis has been beneficial for the economies of the new member states all the time, the commitment to rule of law and the EU’s regulatory model has taken the EU’s Eastern members on the road to better governance and economic growth.

The best path for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would be one of reforms for their own sake and not to please the EU. This is admittedly hard, for many reasons, starting from domestic instability to the regional threats. In a nuanced and realistic article written for The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, de Waal and Youngs call this approach‘reforms as resilience’.  They argue that better functioning institutions would give EaP states de facto sovereignty  and more confidence to choose their strategic identity. Furthermore, reforms, especially reforms in governance to make institutions less corrupt and more effective in providing public services is something citizens in these countries may appreciate in and of itself, rather than because the EU wants it. The focus on geopolitics obscures this and may almost provide a helpful excuse for reluctant elites, keen to preserve their privileged access to power and continue extracting rents.

The European Union’s moral authority to point to the need for reform is also currently obscured by its own geopolitical caution. It is the citizens of EaP states that should be the ones to make the choice clear: for reforms, regardless of the EU membership perspective. Yet the deeply rooted patterns of corruption and rent seeking and the economic weakness of neighbourhood states make it difficult to re-kindle domestic reform energy. Nevertheless, the path of domestic reforms may be the only one to break the vicious circle of mutual lack of serious commitment  that the EU and its Eastern partners seem to have entered.

Uncategorized

Would consensus on EU foreign policy decisions lead to ‘democracies without choices’?

In a refreshingly sophisticated interpretation, Alexandre Afonso ascribed the victory of Syriza in Greece is a logical result of what he has called ‘cartel politics’  in the South of Europe, the forming of political alliances between left and right parties to fulfil a specific goal linked to debt payments and implementation of austerity policies. The South European states Afonso refers to are not the only ones to have followed a fairly uniform course in terms of economic policy. In Central and Eastern Europe, as Ivan Krastev has argued, success in joining the European Union and following the EU’s economic rules and prescriptions have brought, next to the great improvements in institutions, governance and investment, a constraint on choices in economic policy that led him and others to label post communist states ‘democracies without choices’. Membership of the EU was a goal shared by all political parties and major stakeholders in Central and Eastern European states, albeit in different ways and sometimes, as in the case of the Czech republic’s Vaclav Klaus, with a eurosceptic tint; There is no doubt that striving for eurozone membership in particular (Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia and since this year also Lithuania are euro members) has limited the spectrum of choices in economic policy, leading, as Krastev pointed out, to the rise of populist parties. Without entering into the huge debates around the rules of the eurozone and especially the effects of the convergence criteria on different types of economies in the EU, from a political science point of view the question of effects of key policies on national democracies continues to be a vexing one. The dangers of one size economic policy fits all EU member states may have been made painfully obvious by the sovereign debt crisis, but the question about continuity and commitment at EU level versus democratic choice at national level can be asked about all policies.

What are the effects on EU member states’ democracies when mutually agreed policies – in the past  – do not leave much room for change, for parties to campaign on and voters to choose from at present? This is clearly a question of EU democracy as a whole and so far no answers have emerged so far from the middle rather than extreme parts of the political spectrum to square the circle between democratic choice and supranational commitment.

An interesting variation on this theme has been the statement of the new Greek government’s foreign minister, Mr. Kotzias, that media reports that Greece did not agree with extension of Russian sanctions by the European Council were mistaken. Greek objections were only about the EU partners not having consulted the new Greek government before bringing a common position to the press. Mr. Varoufakis, the new finance minister and well known academic and blogger, provided clarification in his blog saying the objections were about not being consulted, so a question of respect. Yet earlier reports suggest the ambassador of Greece was well aware of the proposal, as all EU ambassadors are active participants in the formulation of such positions. Elections can and have led to change of positions of course, yet keeping to agreements made in ongoing consultations appears to be a matter of professional courtesy while a new government has the time to take a more active stance. The debacle with the Greek position on the extension of Russian sanctions appeared to be a case very important for the new Greek government, so one cannot blame commentators for wondering whether a change to a pro-Russia stance was on the cards.

Governments can and have dissented from common EU positions on foreign policy before, sometimes for many years, as the Greek position on the name of one of its neighbours shows. In this case, given that foreign policy decisions at this level in the EU are always based on unanimity (unless the devilishly complicated constructive abstention provisions are evoked) Greece as a member state and a democracy clearly has a choice, just like a number of Central and Eastern European states have followed their own foreign policy course, leading a famously irate former French President Chirac to comment that  when they signed letters backing the US position in Iraq in 2003, CEE states missed ‘ a good opportunity to keep quiet’. The question in the case of the EU’s stance towards Russia at the moment is whether it is possible for the new Greek government to respond to certain expectations or pro-Russian feelings that some of Syriza’s electorate may cherish without squandering good will that Greece may need from its partners on other issues. In other words, it may be a question not of respect, but of democracy and diplomacy.

Uncategorized

Coming up: What do citizens make of enlargement?

We have been quiet in eurosearch, as we have been busy completing data collection under our ongoing project, MAXCAP‘s workpackage dealing with citizens’ perceptions and understandings of enlargement. The Leiden team and our collaborators from the Balkan Civil Society Development Network, the Free University of Berlin, Sofia University ‘Kliment Ochridski’ and many other colleagues committed to help with this project have worked hard to complete data collection from six countries. During the two stages of MAXCAP field work, we have gathered and filtered more than 8000 statements in 6 languages, visited 70 locations (you can see them here and here) – villages, towns and cities in Bulgaria, FYROM, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland and Serbia and interviewed more than 500 citizens of different backgrounds. The focus groups and interviews we conducted followed the steps prescribed by Q methodology,  seeking to understand what citizens of these countries make of enlargements past and future in a manner that left participants to interact with us and shape the data with their views. Our goal was to let citizens speak about what they expected, understood and felt about the 2004-2007 enlargement of the EU, but also about possible enlargements to come. The focus groups and interviews were an enjoyable and interactive experience in themselves for all of us and one thing we already discovered is that for most citizens of the member states that have joined the EU recently and for candidates, enlargement is closely interlinked with European integration, but for citizens of the older member states, this is not always the case and there is a clearer distinction by what we call in the EU literature widening and deepening.

We are currently analyzing our second stage interviews with 240 participants (40 subjects per country) and we are looking forward to discussing some first, very preliminary results of the analyses, at the House of Europe in the Hague on 14 January 2015. We would be happy if readers of this blog interested in our work  and able to do so would join us, you can find details of the event here. For those of you farther away, we will be publishing results as working papers in the coming year. The MAXCAP working paper series is being actively updated with lots of interesting work also from other teams of the project and our latest newsletter came out in December and may also be worth a visit.

More generally, I would like to wish you all a successful and interesting 2015 in which we can all follow our common interest in European politics, economics and societies and especially in the EU’s neighbourhood.