Update: click to see latest on the referendum result
While we hear a lot about the upcoming referendum on Britain’s EU membership, a separate public consultation due on Wednesday (April 6) in the Netherlands has not made big headlines. Yet the vote is also set to be a tough test for the bloc.
On paper, the referendum is about saying yes or no to a European treaty deepening ties with Ukraine. The broad political, trade and defence deal is already provisionally in place, but it needs to be ratified by all 28 EU member states to come fully into force. The ball is now in the Netherlands’ court.
The referendum is not binding, but most Dutch parties have said they would respect a rejection by voters, which could plunge the EU into a crisis at a time when tensions with Russia are at their highest since the Cold War.
The EU’s accord with Ukraine was signed in March 2014, after a popular uprising toppled the country’s pro-Russian government.
The protests in Kyiv had started out peacefully. But when Russia annexed Crimea, the crisis erupted into a bloody war in the country’s east.
The Dutch became collateral victims of the conflict in July 2014, when flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine with nearly 200 Dutch nationals on board.
The Netherlands has blamed pro-Russian forces for downing the plane, and doesn’t seem to hold any grudge against Ukraine.
But the anti-EU, anti-immigration Freedom Party of right-wing populist Geert Wilders is now leading in polls, and some analysts say he has turned the referendum into a bid to tear the EU apart.
The government, which is campaigning for a ‘yes’, fears the referendum could turn into a protest vote like in 2005, when a majority of the Dutch electorate broke from a pro-European tradition and rejected the EU constitution.
Eleven years later, the migration crisis, austerity policies and a sluggish economy have further fuelled anti-EU sentiment in the country.
With a recent opinion poll showing the “No” is in the lead with almost 66 percent, Wednesday’s vote could deal a fresh blow to the EU. Not to mention to Ukraine.