When the Netherlands introduced a new referendum law in July 2015, few expected it could one day play into the hands of the Kremlin. Or that it would be used to force a national vote on the more than 320-page-long European association agreement with Ukraine. Yet less than a year later, on April 6, the Dutch will have to answer with a Yes or No the question of whether they favor the bloc’s association deal with Kiev. Recent opinion polls suggest it will be a neck-and-neck race between the two sides. Although the vote is advisory and has no direct influence on EU policy, it has caused a scare in The Hague and Brussels. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned that a Dutch No vote will “open the door to a big continental crisis” with only one winner. “Russia would pluck the fruits of an easy victory,” he told the Dutch NRC newspaper. The dull language of the long text of the association agreement belies its explosive potential. For years, it has been the source of a tug-of-war with Moscow as Kiev tried to move out of its former Soviet ruler’s orbit into the arms of the EU.
In late 2013, when former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych backtracked from signing the deal under pressure from Moscow, the document sparked a revolution. Following police repression, a handful of protestors on Kiev’s Maidan Square became hundreds of thousands. Yanukovych was toppled and his successor Petro Poroshenko swiftly put his signature under the agreement, ending the negotiation saga — though conflict between Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and the new Kiev government continues to this day.
In autumn last year, the agreement resurfaced in The Hague when a Eurosceptic citizen’s platform gathered more than 420,000 votes in support of a referendum on the issue, making use of a new law. The campaigners argued in a video that Brussels had undemocratically committed Europe to closer ties with “a geopolitical hornet’s nest” and warned of a revival of the Cold War country still coming to terms with the downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Two-thirds of the victims were Dutch.