The consequences of our ‘No’
At least 30 percent of the Dutch voters have cast their vote in the Ukraine referendum, and that the No camp has won with a vast majority.
With this result, the Netherlands is conveying some important messages. EU politicians have to deliver better EU policy, Ukraine should not act the victim, and EU issues demand EU-wide referenda, says Adriaan Schout (Clingendael).
The association agreement with Ukraine has been sparking heated debate between supporters and opponents. Both camps have inflated its significance. If the government acts on this ‘no’, legally speaking there will be no agreement between the EU and Ukraine.
The question is whether that will make much of a difference. According to the ‘no’ side that’s a good thing: Ukraine can continue to focus on trade with Russia and the EU is spared having to deal with a corrupt country. Nor does the ‘no’ camp believe the Netherlands has to answer to the EU or Ukraine over this. Those in favour, however, claim Ukraine’s progress will now be damaged, the Russian threat will increase, and the Maidan generation will lose its hope of establishing European values. According to the ‘yes’ camp, the Netherlands looks like a fool, because, just like with the European constitution in 2005, we have managed to ruin another European ambition.
If the government acts on the ‘no’ vote, and supposing that, ultimately, there will be no association agreement, this will have little effect in practice. Too often in the past decades have we thought that EU policy would make the difference. Under the influence of the euro, South European countries would reform, but economic dynamism has failed to materialise while corruption and over-regulation in, for instance, Italy continue to proliferate.
Despite agreements and treaties, Europe’s external borders are still porous and Member States have often been incredibly slow to implement market legislation. With each crisis, countries prove to have great difficulty modernising, despite the many legal arrangements. Reforms affect existing power balances and economic relations and thus always meet with resistance. The fact that Greece is now finally reforming has little to do with treaties and agreements but simply with it being under supervision.
This association agreement would not have pulled Ukraine into the 21st century. Modernising is something that Ukrainians should mainly be doing themselves. It is up to the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian businesses and Ukrainian citizens to fight corruption and create trade opportunities. Ultimately, our ‘no’ has little to do with the choices the Ukrainians have to make themselves.
The European market is much bigger and more dynamic than the Russian one, and there is nothing stopping the Ukrainians to tailor their trade and values to the West. There is no reason for Ukraine to act the victim or say they have no longer a reason to reform now. If Ukraine chooses to modernise, neither the Netherlands nor the EU will abandon Ukraine. The EU will keep working towards trade liberalisation.
Still, the Netherlands does have some explaining to do. The reputational damage will be far less as long as the Netherlands has a good story. There is no reason for us, just as there wasn’t in 2005, to be ashamed of this referendum. In the neighbouring countries they are also writing about the Ukraine agreement and similar views can be seen in the media there. In the United Kingdom, Brexit supporter Lord Owen calls the Ukraine agreement a dangerous example of European short-term thinking and in the German media the Dutch referendum is met with understanding.The Netherlands does not have a monopoly on doubts and primitive gut feelings about enlargement, on relations with Russia and on the preferred position of bordering country Ukraine.
The rejected agreement is a compromise between, mainly, Poland that wants enlargement and France that wants a trade agreement but not enlargement. That’s why it is more than a trade agreement but less than a political treaty. The EU has wanted to take things just one step too far and European politicians have insufficiently realised this. It is clear that the European negotiators should be better at assessing where the limits of European support lie; if not, the EU will be stumbling from one unsuccessful referendum to the next.
Referenda on EU policy will be taking place in more countries in the future. This referendum most likely does not make the Netherlands the EU-critical odd one out, but rather the forerunner in critically assessing European policy. ‘Yes’ would have been great, but this ‘no’ should be regarded constructively also by the rest of the EU.
The lesson that higher demands are now placed on the EU applies to all European politicians. They have to learn to be even less easily satisfied with the compromises they have to reach during the many difficult negotiations in Brussels. They should be better aware that at home different demands are made than in the Brussels arena.
It is moreover clear that if there will be more referenda, the instrument should be reviewed. One consequence of European integration is that issues that are clearly European require an EU-wide referendum. At the moment, with national referenda, any country may be the scapegoat. Besides, a national referendum generates political insights which later have to be shared EU-wide while the other countries may not be open to them.
Now that the EU is a political key issue Member States should also follow similar societal paths where EU subjects are concerned. There is no need for the Netherlands to feel guilty; but this ‘no’ does need a good European story.
Adriaan Schout is Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator Europe at the Institute of International Relations Clingendael.