Nee, nee, nee

‘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.

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19 thoughts on “Nee, nee, nee”

  1. That’s amazing stuff to read about the Czechs, I had never seen or considered this before. It sheds a whole new light not just on Ukraine but possibly on all the other eastern European countries who joined the EU at about the same time. Doubtless also NATO membership was linked in some way to the market reforms and the prospect of EU membership and (the real attraction for most people) being part of the visa-free Schengen zone.

    Thanks very much for this information, Paul.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. And it is significant that the system they seek to implant with these reforms is the western business model, with the resultant power accorded to corporations, which eventually become so powerful they don’t just dictate legislation – they band together to write it. This makes the brief the “No” side wrote – in which they argued the Dutch should vote “No” because it was a terrible agreement for Ukraine and would gut small businesses in favour of foreign corporations – all the more relevant.

      Also, I wouldn’t belittle the turnout figure; considering the issue did not even affect the Dutch directly, it was pretty impressive. Voter apathy is taking its toll in the Netherlands as well. Turnout even for general elections has been sinking steadily, and is currently at just over 70%. The Dutch had compulsory voting until 1967. Voting in the Netherlands for the EU Parliament has not broken out of the thirties since 1989.

      http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?CountryCode=NL

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  2. I don’t think it made a difference in the end, but it’s also worth noting that Ukraine’s lobbying efforts were what you’d expect from a stereotypical banana republic.

    Although formally consultative, the major Dutch parties did pledge to respect the will of the electorate should the 30% barrier be breached. Even so I don’t expect this to make a major difference in the end because the EU has ultimately never been know for resopecting the results of national referenda anyway.

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  3. “the Dutch government does not have to abide by its result”

    Well, it could also be the case that the EU wants to stop the integration effort now. Perhaps it doesn’t pass the cost/benefit analysis anymore, as far as the EU technocrats are concerned… In which case (assuming they can convince the Washington politburo), this could be an excuse to roll back the project, and cut the losses. Including the visa-free regime, which they seem to be (understandably) nervous about, these days…

    In any case, I’m sure this can be viewed by the EU obkom as an opportunity, additional leverage, rather than just a headache…

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  4. Zrada!

    It is amusing to see how Western news outlets like the Guardian (of course) attempted to pre-emptively do damage control by arguing that this is not reeeeally about Ukraine but about the rise of Euroscepticism more broadly.

    It just seems to confirm an impression I’ve had for a long while, namely, that outside the narrow, educated middle-class elite that dominates (and consumes) public discourse through ‘quality media’, the master narrative of Russian aggression looks pretty ridiculous. Most people do not really see in what way they could be possible threatened by Russia and they also can’t fathom (if they care at all) how a ‘revolution against corruption’ could possibly bring to power people who had been in and out of government for the last 20 years. Whenever the flimsiness of this account is realised, we get calls to counter the ‘Russian information war’, which is apparently so effective that it makes people believe crazy stuff like that neo-nazi militias are neo-nazi militias.

    Euroscepticism is the sum of many such problems. There are now too many people whose own experience just doesn’t square with a number of EU narratives (for different reasons).

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  5. “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… 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…”

    I have a question – who are those elusive UKrainian elites, who truly want:

    a) To carry out the so-called “free market reforms”?
    b) Ukraine to become ‘a normal Western European country’?

    Personally, I don’t know any. Can you help me?

    “Free-market” is just a buzzword for another wave of privatization. Yes, *another* wave – Ukraine had a lot of them in its turbulent past thanks to which now it is ruled over (oftentimes – directly) by a class of super rich oligarchs. Do they want the EU membership with all that it entails? Do they want a competition? Do they want to lose their ill-gotten fotrtunes? Questions are rhetorical, btw.

    What happened in the Eastern Europne in the 90s and what is happening now in the Ukraine is different. Former Warsaw pact countries were about to embark upon their first large scale privatization and “free-market reforms” ™ roller-coaster, with the EU (and NATO) membership as a consolation prize for being ruled over by the international capital and submitting your foreign/internal policy to the EUrocracy.

    This “carrot” does not exist for the Ukraine. A lot of most “juicy” parts of the former state enterprises are already in the sweaty hands of the oligarchs (and Private Property Is Sacred). Top EUrocrats are saying loud that Ukraine might become a EU member in about 20 years time (just enough to bring back its economy to the 2013 level). NATO membership is also, understandably, off the table for a time beign.

    What remains? Trade association agreement proved to be not so beneficial for the mutual trade. Only visa-free travel remains. That’s the only “carrot” here, which, as some Maidanites still belive, would allow them to “live like a human beigns” in Europe. How they can do that without money is beyond me.

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  6. “some of them do at least want to reform their country to become what they might call ‘a normal Western European country’”.

    That would require, among many other things, very powerful earth-moving machinery. At best Ukraine is at the very Eastern extremity of Europe, and it will never be Western European in any sense.

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  7. “The more it becomes clear that EU citizens aren’t at all interested in providing Ukraine with any benefits…”

    EU citizens aren’t interested in Ukraine – period.

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  8. “The Dutch government does not have to abide by the result”. Is this another one of those “full fledged liberal democracies” you were writing about a few weeks ago?

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  9. A very good point made by someone I don’t respect – Nigel Farage – is that the organizational skills of the organization that fueled this referendum is what really should scare both the Dutch government and the EU. If you followed the argumentation on the referendum on social media in Dutch as I did, then it is clear that a lot of topics were molded into one direction and the resulting frustration was expressed in the voter booths – in spite of a dedicated effort by Ukrainian politicians and organizations to vote ‘yes’ and in spite of the Dutch media’s efforts to discourage voting at all and rig the voter turnout.
    This referendum was about Ukraine, and just because it was also about EU migration, frustration with EU bureaucracy, rejection of EU Euro monetary policy, rejection of the EU’s foreign policies, it is not less about Ukraine. There’s a famous Dutch song: I bring you tulips from Amsterdam. The Dutch just brought Ukraine those rare black tulips – a symbol of farewell, a parting gift for the deceased.

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  10. Paul, just a funny aside: Kabouter Plop is not Dutch, he’s Flemish. As a Fleming by birth, it’s my duty to report this humongous fact. And the Flemish and the Dutch are very, very different. If you know the jokes, you know how hilariously serious we take this.

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    1. Indeed, my apologies to the people of Flanders. I actually learnt about Kabouter Plop while living in Belgium, and have even been to Plopsaland!

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      1. Apologies wholeheartedly accepted. Now there’s a professor who has his priorities straight… Plopsaland, previously known as the Meli, in the forgotten south-west corner of Flanders hugging the French border and the North Sea. I hope you had a wonderful meal, with our without ‘puree’, closer to Bruges or Ieper to digest the experience. Enjoyed your article, by the way, as usual!

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  11. Dear Paul:

    Lordy, Professor, maybe we will make a Marxist of you yet!

    That analysis of the Czech situation is brilliant and says it all.
    It was never about civilizational or cultural choice, it was always (primarily) just about the privatizations and the looting of national economies.

    Like Mary Poppins (also a rock solid Marxist) used to say:
    “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

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