Ukraine, we are often told, has made a choice – to become a ‘European’ country, and in this way to decisively cut its historical ties to ‘non-European’ Russia. But what if Europe (in the form of the European Union (EU)) turns Ukraine away?
This has always been more likely than supporters of Ukraine’s post-Maidan government have been willing to admit. Ukraine’s situation is somewhat analogous to that of Turkey – even if the country were to fulfill all the demands that the EU makes of it, there is a very good chance that the Union would deny it membership anyway. The same applies to membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). ‘Europe’ is like a carrot dangling always out of the reach of a Ukrainian donkey.
For the European dream to survive, Ukrainians have to fail to understand this. Given that the official integration process into the EU and NATO is a lengthy one, as long as those institutions keep up the pretence, it could take a considerable amount of time until Ukrainians realize that they are being duped. But what if the pretence is dropped and somebody takes away the carrot?
On 6 April this year, the people of the Netherlands will vote in a referendum on whether to ratify the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. All EU members have to ratify any such treaty for it to come into effect, so if the Dutch were to turn down the association agreement, Ukraine’s carrot would suddenly disappear. Ukrainians would have carried out a revolution and fought a war in order to join an institution which would have said in reply, ‘No thanks, we don’t want you.’
This is a very real possibility. The results of a poll issued on Saturday show that 53% of eligible Dutch citizens said that they are certain to vote in the referendum (which requires a 30% turnout to be considered valid) and another 17% said that they are likely to vote. Also, just over 50% indicated that they would definitely vote to reject the agreement with Ukraine and another 25% said that they would probably do so.
These figures should not come as a huge surprise. On the rare occasions when they are allowed a direct vote, EU voters have a habit of rejecting agreements, as shown by the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, the Irish rejection of the Nice Treaty, and the French rejection of the European Constitution. So what would happen if, as is quite possible, the Dutch choose to slam the door on Ukraine?
There are three possibilities:
- The Dutch parliament ignores the result of the referendum. Under Dutch law, referenda are not legally binding on the government; the latter merely has to take the results into consideration. The largest party in the governing coalition, the VVD, has already said that it won’t change its support for the agreement no matter how the people vote. In the event of a ‘no’ vote, we can expect parties in the Dutch parliament to come under heavy pressure from other EU states to ignore the result. This pressure may prove effective.
- The Dutch parliament heeds the will of the people, and rejects the association agreement once and for all. This is not impossible. The centre-right Christian Union party, for instance, has said that ‘if we’re overruled [by the people], we need to know our place.’ This scenario would shatter Ukraine’s European dream in a very public way. The promise of a ‘European’ future lies at the heart of the post-Maidan regime. Without it, all the reforms proposed by the Ukrainian government would lose their legitimacy. Having pinned all their hopes on Europe, it is hard to see where pro-Maidan Ukrainians could go if Europe told them ‘no’. The prospects for those now governing Ukraine would be bleak indeed.
- The Dutch parliament heeds the will of the people, and rejects the association agreement, but only in its current form. The government expresses its willingness to seek better terms; a long period of negotiation then follows, during which EU leaders try to make the minimum number of changes to the agreement required to get the Dutch people to change their minds. A revised agreement is then put forward for another vote, accompanied by all sorts of threats of the catastrophic consequences which will follow if the Dutch again then vote ‘no’. This is the train of events which followed previous unwelcome referendum votes, and must be considered quite likely. It would keep the carrot dangling in front of the Ukrainian donkey, but it would be a smaller carrot hanging rather further away. The Maidan regime might just about survive this, but the European narrative which sustains it would come under considerable strain.
Not being an expert in Dutch politics, I will not attempt to predict who will win. But if the polls are correct and the ‘no’ side triumphs, we have some interesting times ahead.