Dutch voters rejected closer EU links to Ukraine in ‘mini-Brexit’ referendum

EU: Mark Rutte calls for ‘strong Europe in an unstable world’

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On January 1, the post-Brexit transition period expired, meaning EU rules no longer apply in Britain. It is a new chapter for the country’s history – as for the last 48 years, EU membership had constricted Britain’s ability to make its own decisions and set its own policies. The journey there was not an easy one, as Brexit day was preceded by a debilitating political period that bitterly divided the nation.

The time since the Leave vote in June 2016 involved unprecedented levels of parliamentary rancour, public anger and mistrust.

Many parliamentarians and politicians tried to ignore the democratic will of the people.

In the end, though, Prime Minister Boris Johnson triumphed at the 2019 general election and kept his promise to respect the referendum.

Not many European countries have received the same treatment following a referendum on a European issue.

In 2016, Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected a Ukraine-European Union treaty on closer political and economic ties, in a rebuke to their government and to the EU establishment.

At the time, the referendum was branded by Pieter Cleppe, head of Brussels office at policy think-tank Open Europe, as a “mini-Brexit”.

Voters said they were voicing their opposition not only to the Treaty itself but also to European policymakers on matters ranging from the migrant crisis to economic policy.

Although the referendum was non-binding, the Dutch political establishment decided they needed to “take the outcome into account”.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte did not want to flat-out ignore the results, or push ratification through, and set out to find a third option.

At an EU summit in December 2016, he found it: the Dutch leader convinced his 27 counterparts to support a text that explained what the treaty was about.

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The declaration noted, among other things, that the treaty did not guarantee EU membership to Ukraine, and that the Netherlands was not obliged to provide Ukraine military assistance.

Mr Rutte said the declaration addressed the concerns of the No voters in the referendum, although opposition parties that campaigned against the treaty disagreed.

A year later, the Dutch senate approved ratification of the EU-Ukraine free trade and association agreement.

However, some politicians in the Netherlands remain highly sceptical of the EU.

Mr Rutte is hoping to secure a fourth term today with an election victory that would put him on course to be the Netherlands’ longest-serving government chief.

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His centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) are expected to win a fourth term in office – even if his party has been rocked with scandal and accusations that it has mismanaged the pandemic.

Opinion polls show the VVD is ahead of the pack when it comes to voter popularity. However, it is trailed by the opposition right-wing, nationalist Party for Freedom, led by controversial figure Geert Wilders.

Brexit has recently sparked an intense debate within the country over its place in the EU, though.

As an EU founding member state, the Netherlands is traditionally very pro-European but there is now concern that with Brexit, the sway of the Dutch could be diminished.

According to Eurostat, the country was the EU’s fifth-largest economy in 2019, making up 5.8 percent of the bloc’s GDP and it is also one of the largest contributors to the EU budget.

Similar to the British public’s decision to vote to leave the EU, financial contributions and the lack of funds received in return has helped give rise to discontent in the Netherlands towards Brussels.

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