‘Ik zit in de puree, nee, nee, nee’ (‘I’m in trouble, no, no, no’), sang the Dutch television character Kabouter Plop. Well now, the Dutch have voted No to the European Union’s association agreement with Ukraine. In a referendum held in the Netherlands today to approve the agreement, 61% voted no, with a turnout of 32%. The EU and Ukraine are both in trouble.
The last time that I broached the topic of the referendum, one commentator claimed that it didn’t matter because the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2013 was never about association with the EU, but rather was a protest in favour of ‘European values … for the right to a respectable life, to a democratic choice, for the right to live free of oppression, free of corruption.’ A conversation I had with a couple of Czech central bank officials about 15 years ago shows why this response underestimates the association agreement’s importance.
I asked the Czechs why they wanted to join the EU. They replied that personally, they didn’t, but what they did want to do was carry out a series of far-reaching free market reforms. They knew that these would be extremely unpopular and unless the reforms could be linked to something else, the Czech people would reject them. At the same time, the officials recognized that most of their compatriots did want to join the EU, believing that doing so was the path to prosperity. The bankers didn’t share this belief, but they realized that they could use it. By signing an agreement with the EU obliging the Czech Republic to carry out the reforms in question as a prerequisite for EU membership, they could force their reluctant compatriots to accept what they would otherwise have rejected. The purpose of the EU membership agreement was not, therefore, to achieve EU membership, but rather to provide the country’s free market elites with a tool they could use to beat their opponents into submission.
The same principle applies to Ukraine’s EU association agreement. I would be surprised if many of those in authority in Kiev truly believe that their country is on the march towards EU membership, but some of them do at least want to reform their country to become what they might call ‘a normal Western European country’. The economic and social reforms they desire are unpopular, but the association agreement gives them the means they need to overcome opposition. One can observe this in the debate which occurred over prohibiting discrimination in the workplace against gays and lesbians. Initially, the Ukrainian parliament rejected legislation designed to do this. Then, after being told that they had to pass the legislation if the EU was to provide the visa-free access promised in the association agreement, the parliament changed its mind. Take away the agreement and all sorts of other unpopular reforms will suddenly become much more difficult to enact because it will no longer be possible to blackmail Ukraine’s parliament in this way.
Fortunately for the pro-Western ‘reformers’, the referendum is consultative only; the Dutch government does not have to abide by its result. Given the low turnout, which only just surpassed the 30% minimum legally required to validate the result, the government may well feel that it can get away with ignoring the vote. Alternatively, it may negotiate some very minor modifications to the association agreement in order to give the appearance of respecting the people’s wishes, without actually ripping up the agreement entirely. Even if either of these scenarios transpires, some damage will still have been done. The agreement’s power as a tool to browbeat opposition depends upon people believing that some day they will reap all the benefits they think it promises. The more it becomes clear that EU citizens aren’t at all interested in providing Ukraine with any benefits, the harder it will become to sustain this belief, and the harder the reformers will find it to surmount the obstacles in their path. The pace of change in Ukraine in the past two years has been decidedly slow; at the very least, the vote in the Netherlands means that it is unlikely to become any quicker.