April 6, 2016 | By: MIKE CORDER
The Dutch voted Wednesday in a referendum on a far-reaching free trade deal meant to foster closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union that has run into opposition in the Netherlands where many see it as evidence of unwanted EU expansionism.
The non-binding vote in the Netherlands exposes deep divisions about this country’s place in Europe and comes less than three months before British citizens decide in their own referendum whether to leave the EU altogether.
Dutch opponents of the EU-Ukraine association agreement argue its ultimate goal is bringing Kiev into the EU. Supporters say it is not a membership stepping stone and will boost trade and help battle corruption and improve human rights in the former Soviet republic on Europe’s restive eastern edge.
“It’s about solidarity with a country which wants to develop itself and I believe, in (the) longer term, I would like for Ukraine to have both a stable relationship with Europe and with Russia,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after voting.
Popular anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, a fierce opponent of the EU, said he hoped the vote would give hope to other nations questioning their place in Europe.
After casting his ballot at a school on the outskirts of The Hague, Wilders said the Dutch referendum could act as an incentive to British voters to reject the European Union in June. “So it could be today that it is the start of the end of the European Union as we know it today and that would be very good,” he said.
Much of the deal between the EU and Ukraine already is being provisionally implemented but the Netherlands’ ratification, approved last year by both houses of Parliament, was put on ice pending the outcome of the referendum.
Exactly what will happen to the agreement if the Dutch vote against it remains unclear, but politicians all say Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government will have to take the result seriously. The advisory referendum is declared valid only if voter turnout is over 30 percent.
The Netherlands is a founding member of the European Union, a trading nation that benefits from the EU’s internal market, but paradoxically it also is a hotbed of Euroskepticism that rejected the bloc’s proposed constitution in a 2005 referendum.
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