'This isn't about Ukraine. Maybe people can't find it on a map. This is about targeting Brussels'
On April 6 the Netherlands will go to the polls in a national referendum on ratifying Ukraine's association agreement with the EU.
The destiny of Europe's biggest nation is potentially in the hands of the citizens of the Netherlands. The future of nearly 46 million people now depends on whether the Dutch decide to support Ukraine's association with the European Union.
This is exactly why, Ukraine Today with the cooperation of Euromaidan Press has launched #DutchInUA project. Our goal is to gather the views and opinions of the Dutch businessmen and entrepreneurs who work in Ukraine. As well as provide analysis by the experts from the Netherlands who can assess the influence of the referendum on the future of Ukraine and the E.U. as a whole.
The referendum is non-binding but MPs have promised to bow to ‘the will of the people.' What are the forces shaping Dutch opinion and which way will they go? Helping us answer those questions in the Viewpoint studio is Arend Jan Boekestijn a broadcaster, former MP and Lecturer in International Relations at Utrecht University.
Rahim Rahemtulla: Many thanks for joining us. You are here as part of the delegation from the Netherlands. Tell us your impressions so far of your trip here to Ukraine. This is your first time, I believe.
Arend Jan Boekestijn: Yes. We had a very busy schedule. And although it was a Dutch delegation, there were also people from Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Italy. We were invited by mail by Institute of World Policy here in Kyiv and they said that I was a European thought leader, I didn't know that, but now I am a European thought leader. And it was a fantastic programme, we even had a visit with the Prime Minister.
R. R.: And this is coming at a rather crucial time in Dutch-Ukrainian relations, we might say. Because we have a referendum coming up in the Netherlands on the ratification of Ukraine's Association Agreement with the European Union. Tell us a little bit about attitudes in the Netherlands to this Agreement.
A. J. B.: It is weird and a long story. We had a new parliamentary law, which enabled us to have consultative referendum, which means it is not binding. If you can collect 300,000 signatures, than you can organise a referendum. Some people did this, they've got enough signatures and now we have this referendum. But the trouble is, first of all, it is not binding, so people are angry about that. And, secondly, that the parliament itself said: "Okay, when we have the results, I think we should listen to the people." So, the parliament made itself binding. Now the Prime Minister hasn't said what he will do, if the outcome is negative. But if you know Brussels well, just imagine that the outcome will be negative, which is possible, because in the polls, I think, 55% is against the Association treaty. If that were to happen, our Prime Minister has to go to Brussels, but it takes a vote based on unanimity to change the treaty. So it is very unclear situation, it is not what will happen. And I think the outcome will be that it will be very difficult to change the treaty. Then, of course, the people who are against it will be even angrier.
Activists hold posters with text reading "Don't listen to Russian propaganda" in front of the Dutch embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.
R. R.: It sounds rather difficult. I think some top European officials have said that if the Dutch vote against the treaty, it will be something of a disaster. It seems like it is shaping up to be a kind of a test between Brussels and your own politics in the Netherlands. And this is playing in to what we might say were wider sentiment in Dutch society.
A. J. B.: Absolutely. Because if the outcome will be negative and there will be no change in the treaty, it will, of course, embolden populism in the Netherlands. And we already have a substantial amount of populism in Dutch politics. Just like in France, Italy and even Germany today. Even in England.
R. R.: It is a growing trend, I think, across Europe. And Ukraine potentially stands to become what we can call a victim of this rising in populism across Europe. But how much do you think in the Netherlands this is really about Ukraine? What do people know about Ukraine?
A. J. B.: People don't know anything about Ukraine. They can't even find it on a map, I'm afraid. But what's happening is that it is a large anti-European spirit in the society. So they took this topic, but in reality they were targeting Brussels itself in this anti-European mood. Everything which destroys the European Union is fine for that. And it is a sad situation.
R. R.: And you can see on the one side if you're in the Western Europe how Ukraine appears to them, because what we have here is still a war going on in the eastern part of the country. The economy is just coming out of recession, but it is still in a bad way. If it were, for example, a part of the European Union, it would receive more funds than it would give to the rest of the Union. There are grounds for understanding why Dutch, French or Italians might say: "Actually, we don't want anything to do with Ukraine right now. Let them get their own house in order first, and maybe later they could join closer to the European Union." Do you think those sorts of arguments are valid?
A. J. B.: Yes. Many people argue that both the European Union and NATO made a big mistake in the past, because they were flirting with Ukrainian membership of both the EU and NATO. Merkel has curbed it, but there were mentions. Now people in the Netherlands think that this policy has been detrimental to Ukraine itself, because it also invited Putin to grab Crimea. They would have preferred a more distant way of dealing with these things. And in a way it is true. If you think about it, NATO membership of Ukraine only makes sense if people in the western world are willing to die for Kyiv. That's the basic argument. And that is not going to happen. If you flirt with the membership it is also hypocritical in this sense. Wouldn't it be much nicer not to flirt about it, but to help Ukraine in a bilateral or in the multilateral way?
R. R.: I think many Dutch would support what is going on in this country. I mean, what they are fighting for here is democracy, rule of law, European values, things that Dutch, French, Italians, British would very much support. Do you think you have to go back to the Netherlands now and try to explain for them what is really going on there? As far as I understand, you would like the referendum to fail and the Dutch to support Ukraine.
A. J. B.: Yes. And also I have to explain the positions of segments of Dutch society. There is a growing segment in Dutch society that is, funny enough, pro-Putin, because Putin is also against the European Union and they like his authoritarian way of operating. There are also people who think that the present Ukrainian government will never become democratic. And it is a very sad argument. I think, it is very powerful in Netherlands. "We are not going to support this government." And that will play a big role during the referendum also. They think all their money that will be put in the referendum will go to the coffers of bad people.
R. R.: What can we do to change that attitude? I'm sure in Holland they saw all the pictures from two years ago, from the Maidan and the revolution they had here. But two years later people are not necessarily going to remember that. And the propaganda war which has come about those events has blurred the picture quite strongly. So what is needed to be done to get the real message across to Dutch?
A. J. B.: I think there are two compelling arguments. First of all, part of the Ukrainian society wants to have the rule of law. They know that the present day situation is stifling economic growth and that they will never find a job when it stays like this. I think we have to support these people because I believe in the rule of law myself, these are European values and if you believe in them, you have to try to promote the rule of law in the country which is really struggling with it. But the second argument is perhaps even more compelling. If Ukraine were to succeed in about 20, 30, 40, 50 years in really altering this oligarchic structure, than it would become a booming place. It has everything for this: IT, military industry. And if it really would become vibrant democracy, it would also embolden the opposition against Putin in Russia. Putin's biggest fear is that Ukraine becomes a success, because there are many people in Russia too, who would like to have the rule of law. There is a big geopolitical game to be made here. And thirdly, of course, power needs countervailing power. We see now in the east what Putin has done and there is no much power to counter Putin's power. And that's worrying me.
R. R.: As a final thought, should we put the referendum in the Netherlands in geopolitical terms? Should you tell to the Dutch people that it isn't actually just about Ukraine? That this is about Europe, this is about our future, about the next frontier of the European project and about securing the continent against practices like those that we see in Russia? Do you think ultimately that sort of spin is going to get through to the Dutch people?
A. J. B.: I hope so. I will try to do it. But, to be perfectly honest, the European Union itself is in a big crisis. We will see a shrinking Eurozone; I think that Greeks are going to leave. We will see a mini-Schengen area, I'm afraid that Greeks will also be kicked out of Schengen. We are combining all these arguments in a setting which is really volatile, and Europe is in crisis. To some extent, I think, we also had an imperial overstretch in the European Union. I think we have to become smaller and build in more solid and then expand.
Watch other #DutchInUA interveiws and reports: