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Dutch voters reject EU-Ukraine deal

BBC News BBC News 7/04/2016
Prime Minister Mark Rutte cast his vote in The Hague, as he was followed by a Russian TV crew (6 April) © AP Prime Minister Mark Rutte cast his vote in The Hague, as he was followed by a Russian TV crew

Voters in the Netherlands have rejected in a referendum an EU partnership deal to remove trade barriers with Ukraine.

A couple stands next to a poster depicting Dutch politician Geert Wilders and Russian President Vladimir Putin kissing (3 April): Yes campaigners have accused anti-EU politician Geert Wilders of cosying up to Russia's president © Reuters Yes campaigners have accused anti-EU politician Geert Wilders of cosying up to Russia's president

Turnout was low, 32.2%, but above the 30% threshold for the vote to be valid. The deal was rejected by 61.1% of votes compared with 38.1% in favour.

Ukrainian students hold up a sign for their pedagogical university as they urge Dutch voters to back the EU deal (5 April): On the eve of the vote, Ukrainian students rallied in Kiev urging the Dutch to back their cause © AP On the eve of the vote, Ukrainian students rallied in Kiev urging the Dutch to back their cause

Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the government may have to reconsider the deal, although the vote is not binding.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko insisted his country would "continue our movement towards the EU".

A foreign ministry official in Kiev told the BBC that the result was disappointing, adding that Dutch Eurosceptics could not take Ukraine hostage to express dissatisfaction with the EU.

The vote was widely seen in the Netherlands as a test of public opinion towards the EU.

It was triggered by an internet petition begun by Eurosceptic activists that attracted some more than 400,000 signatures.

The result creates a headache for the Dutch government as the Dutch parliament ratified the EU association agreement with Ukraine last year. All the other 27 EU member states have already ratified the deal.

"My view is that if the turnout is more than 30%, with such a victory for the 'No' camp, ratification cannot go ahead without discussion," Mr Rutte said in a televised reaction.

Geert Wilders, who leads the anti-EU and anti-Islam Freedom Party, said the result was the "beginning of the end for the EU".

'A chance to protest' - Dutch Eurosceptics trigger vote

Analysis, by Alex Forsyth, BBC political correspondent

Officially the Netherlands has rejected a landmark deal between the EU and Ukraine - in reality the issues that dominated this campaign were much wider.

The referendum was triggered by the Eurosceptic movement which used a new Dutch law designed to promote democracy to force a vote by gathering enough signatures on a petition.

From the start activists said this was a chance for Dutch voters to express frustration at the EU, in particular what they see as its desire to expand despite democratic shortcomings.

But they were not asked to simply pass judgement on the EU, and throughout the campaign those promoting a Yes vote were frustrated by what they saw as attempts by Eurosceptics to hijack a debate which should have been about relations between Ukraine, Russia and Europe.

Some say the multiple layers to this referendum means the result cannot seen as a true reflection of the scale of Dutch Euroscepticism.

Nonetheless, the rejection of this deal will rattle the nerves of European leaders who are already struggling to maintain unity in the face of economic instability and the migrant crisis.

Wider issues behind referendum

The vote comes less than three months before British citizens decide in their own referendum whether to leave the EU altogether.

A spokesman for campaign group Leave.EU, Brian Monteith, said: "This humiliating rejection of the Ukraine agreement demonstrates that people don't have to support the EU and its expansionist agenda to feel European."

The Russian government was vehemently opposed to the EU deal with Ukraine and was widely thought to have pressed then-President Viktor Yanukovych to reject it in November 2013. Mr Yanukovych's decision prompted protests in Kiev that ultimately led to his downfall.

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have widely been blamed for the killing of 298 people, when a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam was shot down in July 2014. The Netherlands lost 193 of its citizens.

The Ukrainian president stressed the non-binding nature of the vote.

"I am sure that strategically this event is not an obstacle on Ukraine's path towards Europe," Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported Mr Poroshenko as saying.

One of the Dutch Eurosceptics behind the referendum, Thierry Baudet, had warned the government to heed a "No" vote on the deal. "It is not good for the Netherlands, not good for Europe and not good for Ukraine," he said on TV on the eve of the vote.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had described the stakes in the run-up to the vote as being high, warning that a "No'" vote could trigger a wider crisis in the 28-member bloc.

View from Kiev - by BBC Monitoring

"How will our politicians react if the outcome is a resounding no?" Ukraine's One Plus One TV asked as the polls opened.

In the run-up to the vote, Ukraine's media were abuzz with stories about various Ukrainian initiatives to promote the "Yes" campaign, including what they called an "invasion by propaganda troops" - local politicians and activists travelling to the Netherlands.

Many commentators in Ukraine are now wondering whether Kiev had done enough to counter the No campaign, whose efforts included the distribution of free waffles in wrappers with slogans urging the Dutch to vote against the agreement.

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