Oleg Onopko
Expert on Eastern Europe at Europe Insight

Lazy and Stubborn

What is the significance of the failure of the Dutch referendum on association for Ukraine?

The official results of the referendum on association between Ukraine and the EU has yet to be published in the Netherlands (this will happen on 12 April). But based on data from an exit poll released by the Dutch broadcasting company NOS, one can state confidently that the Ukrainian idea has suffered a crushing defeat in the lands of stamppot, klompen and the House of Orange. 61.1% of King Willem-Alexander’s subjects voted against ratification of the agreement. Three key aspects must be considered in relation to the consequences for Ukraine.

European integration. It would seem that Ukrainians’ dreams about the “bright European future” which they “stood for on Maidan” has been derailed. But there is still a chance to win the coveted “victory”. Judging by the fact that the Association Agreement has already been ratified by 27 EU countries (out of 28), this really has to do with the opinions of the European elite. Of course, the Netherlands may attempt to play the role of a lone ranger combo breaker for the all-European policy on Ukraine and the entire post-Soviet space, but the agreement will most likely be ratified by the Dutch parliament, one way or the other.

Moreover, there are no guarantees we will not find out on the day results are announced that the referendum never happened. (According to exit polls, turnout is currently at a mere 3% over the 30% minimum required threshold for legitimacy.) And if so, the opinion of the Dutch may be considered irrelevant in this way.

On the other hand, thanks to the referendum’s failure, the EU may take on the role of the resourceful mahout, using a “carrot” (the Association Agreement) to further motivate the lazy and stubborn Ukrainian “burro”, which has flat out refused to implement vitally important social and economic reforms or to fight corruption. Ukraine has no other choice but to generally follow the European Union. The state is devoid of political subjectivity, so this will most likely be about strategic motivation calculated, as Jean-Claude Juncker once said, for the next 20-25 years.

Image. The publicity campaign in the Netherlands demonstrated that neither Pavlo Klimkin, nor cyclists, the Klitschko brothers, or even a living chain of students from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to European Square in Kiev could remedy the perception of Ukraine as being a super-corrupt East European country trying to join the EU and threatening to fill Holland with fresh migrants. In this regard, one can identify the following fundamental problems of the Ukrainian state:

— the lack of any kind of effective national image policy, while the private initiatives of individual politicians, cultural and sports figures attempt to serve as surrogates;

— the absurdity and total failure of attempts to publically deny the existence of such problems in Ukraine as corruption;

— the lack of a state strategy and specific mechanisms for cooperating with Western media: practically all communication with the West and the Netherlands in particular has been reduced to the abstract concepts “Save us from Russia!” and “Ukraine is Europe!”’

— the dubiousness of attempts to build the Ukrainian national idea around European integration.

Domestic politics. In Ukraine, the referendum’s failure will lead to the weakening of Petro Poroshenko’s political position and lowered ratings. Blame has already been foisted on him for what happened. Furthermore, a new government headed by Vladimir Groisman is expected to make its debut next Tuesday. Grossman is Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada and someone close to Poroshenko. It is obvious that the political regime in the country will not change. The result will be a deepening of the legitimacy crisis surrounding the Ukrainian leadership.

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