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What Is at Stake on April the 6th?

On April 6th, a referendum gives Dutch citizens the chance to advise their government on whether or not to ratify the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. It might be that you – in spite of Room for Discussion’s session on the topic and ample media coverage – have completely missed the fuzz about this referendum, but this is about to change as political parties are on the verge of launching their referendum campaigns. Soon there will be no escape from discussing the topic and you will wait in fear of the moment that the guy/girl you have had a crush on for ages walks up to you and says: “Hi! What do you think of the treaty?”. Do not worry, there is no reason to start making a fool out of yourself when that moment arrives. Rostra guides you through this multi-faceted and complex issue, and saves you once again from social humiliation.

What is at stake?

Roughly and briefly, the association agreement is aimed at intensifying the economic and political collaboration between the EU and Ukraine. According to the long list of agreements, import and export tariffs will be lowered as to foster Ukraine’s integration in the European market. Furthermore, Ukraine will be able to count on European financial support, Ukrainian and European security policies will gradually converge, and Ukrainian law will be made compatible with European values. After reading the full treaty, one cannot elude the sensation that the agreement is the first step of a longer process that is supposed to culminate in Ukrainian EU membership.

Without a doubt, the agreement has only marginal economic consequences for EU member states, whereas the potential consequences for Ukraine are huge. Currently, Ukraine’s economic dynamic is characterized by an influx of western technological products of high quality and the export of agrarian products and raw materials. Ukrainian economists Kravchuk and Popovych acknowledge the importance of the war in bringing Ukrainian industrial activity to a standstill, but they also see links with the country’s reorientation towards the West. They stress that Ukraine’s technologically underdeveloped industry is of no match for advanced European industries like Germany’s. Meanwhile Russia, traditionally Ukraine’s most important trade partner, is looking for other sources to meet its demand for industrial products. All in all, it remains questionable whether the fragile Ukrainian economy will benefit from the association agreement. For this and other reasons, some economists recommend to postpone the full implementation of the agreement.

Although the association agreement will destruct important segments of the Ukrainian economy, it is not to say that competitive markets, financial support and the inflow of western capital are not going to be beneficial for the country. However, we must admit that the proposed policies are far from ideal. That is, taking into account Ukraine’s economic dynamic, Kiev should always aim at taking advantage of both the European and the Russian market. Noticeably, there is no fundamental reason as to why such a plan of action would involve two mutually exclusive strategies, were it not for geopolitical reasons.

Impact of the referendum

Since July 2015, Dutch law allows citizens to request ‘recommendatory’ referendums about laws and treaties that have already been approved by Dutch parliament. The referendum of April 6 is the first example of such a requested recommendatory referendum. The referendum was officialy approved by The Dutch Electoral Council, after GeenPeil – an  action committee of Dutch citizens – presented the necessary 300.000 signatures. Noticeably, the outcome of the referendum is not binding. That is, even if the majority of voters reject the treaty, parliament will still have the final say on the ratification of the association agreement. In that regard, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has already promised to take the outcome of the referendum “very seriously”.

Then there is the issue of voter turn-out, since at least 30 percent of the electorate needs to participate for the referendum to be valid. It is highly uncertain whether this limit will be met, since the turn-out is expected to be historically low. For this reason, several municipalities have decided to diminish the amount of voting sites. A decision that has been lamented heavily by people who argue that this will make low voter turn-out a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One feels tempted to think back of the summer of 2005, when Dutch and French citizens voted against the implementation of the European constitution. Nonetheless, the European constitution was de facto implemented in the treaty of Lisbon without having received any form of direct approval from the European populace. With the danger of being overly cynical, history teaches us to have little faith in national referendums when it comes to influencing EU policy.


The association agreement cannot be understood in isolation from geopolitical developments in Eastern Europe. It is well-known that Russia feels threatened by NATO’s eastward expansion and that Moscow is strictly committed to preventing the emergence of a Westernized Ukraine right on its occidental border. In that regard, the annexation of Crimea is illustrative for Russia’s realpolitik. According to John Mearsheimer, one of the world’s most respected political scientist, the West misinterprets Russian political interests and is primarily responsible for the political instabilities in Ukraine. He argues that “the United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer zone between NATO and Russia.”

Others blame the Ukrainian crisis completely on Russian aggression. They argue that it was a long-standing imperialistic desire that made Vladimir Putin decide to annex Crimea. Accordingly, the EU should do everything in its power to retain and isolate Russia, for if the country is not a serious threat yet, it will be in the future. Obviously, the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine fits this train of thought fairly well.


It is curious how things play out in this complex world. If I had the ambition to become a novelist, I would highlight the absurdity of the current situation: almost 2 years after flight MH17 was shot down, the traumatized Dutch people, who felt utterly powerless at the time of the horrific incident, are going to decide on the future of Ukraine. But this is not a novel and we must admit that the referendum has little potential to change European policy. Nevertheless, we should carefully consider the pros and cons of the association agreement for Europe, for Geopolitical stability and, above all, for the people of Ukraine.


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