“Are you in favour or against the Approval Act of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine?” That is the question that will be asked in the referendum in the Netherlands on 6 April 2016. The objective of Geenpeil, an initiative by the provocative Dutch weblog GeenStijl that advocated this referendum, is to repeal the parliamentary approval of the Association Agreement (AA) with Ukraine. The European Union (EU) signed AAs with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine on 27 June 2014. GeenPeil campaigned for the referendum under the slogan ‘Save democracy!’ Paradoxically, it is the AA that helps to strengthen democratic standards in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine: three sovereign states that have the right to determine their own future. (Featured image © European Union)
In their campaign video, GeenPeil points out that that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine should not be admitted to the EU. This false campaigning does not correspond with the reality as the AA is not a path towards EU membership. This false narrative is a deliberate attempt to mislead the Dutch electorate as a means of attracting them for their cause. Yes, it is true that all ten countries (like Lithuania and Slovenia) that joined the EU in 2004 had an AA in place before acceding to the EU. Furthermore, all the current official candidate countries (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey) have an AA. However, also countries like Algeria, Chile and Jordan currently have AAs with the EU, but none of them are candidate countries, nor potential candidate countries. The chances that they will apply for membership are very unlikely and if they will, their candidacy will be rejected given the fact that they are clearly not European countries. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko may have expressed the desire of his country to apply for membership in 2020, but this is clearly not what the AA is about.
The AA with Ukraine is rather about enhanced political cooperation and trade with the EU. Through the AA the EU will support Ukraine in, among others, fostering democracy and the rule of law, combating corruption and promoting human rights. The AA also opens the dialogue on visa liberalisation. Some opponents have expressed fears that this will incentivise mass labour immigration to the Netherlands. This is misleading. The agreement does not make Ukraine, nor Georgia or Moldova, a member of the Schengen zone and does not envisage the free movement of labour.
Furthermore, about 90% of the 2,136-pages document is dedicated to the promotion of bilateral trade between the EU and Ukraine. Therefore, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has rightly declared that the pact is good for Europe and good for the Netherlands. “We are a trading nation. We live by free trade agreements and the agreement with Ukraine is another example of this.” Citing similar reasons, also the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) has endorsed the AA with Ukraine.
Even though the AA is mainly a trade agreement, opponents have depicted the agreement as provocative towards the Russian Federation. Members of European Parliament (MEPs) from the far-left and far-right have voted against the approval of the AAs with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Opponents of the AA claim that geopolitical disaster is lurking behind it. Among others, the prominent American political scientist John Mearsheimer has advocated the creation of a neutral Ukraine.
Not only does enforced neutrality infringe the sovereign right of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to determine their own future, a neutral buffer state will also be nothing more than a de facto satellite state of the Kremlin impeding further democratisation.
Although the wish to neutralise Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine might be sincere, it is rather utopian as well. Not only does enforced neutrality infringe the sovereign right of these states to determine their own future, a neutral buffer state will also be nothing more than a de facto satellite state of the Kremlin impeding further democratisation. Russia perceives so-called coloured revolutions as an unacceptable threat. It is also not a secret that Russia regards the entire post-Soviet space as its ‘near abroad’ in which it has ‘privileged interests’, as was outlined by former President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the de facto annexation of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia are clear examples of this. Russia’s aggression in 2008 against Georgia, a country that diverted away from the Kremlin after its Rose Revolution in 2003, should have provided us a lesson of the intentions of Medvedev and incumbent President Vladimir Putin. Revolution and democratisation would divert the country out of Russia’s spheres of influence. Thus, Moscow is very likely to try to curb any attempt of a country in the ‘near abroad’ to democratise.
Electoral fraud, mounting corruption, declining social conditions and intensive Russian intermingling are much better indicators of popular discontent in these countries than European integration only.
Mearsheimer blamed ‘the West’ of having caused the Ukraine crisis. This narrative is in a simplified version repeated by GeenPeil. In their campaign video they depict closer cooperation of the EU and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) with the three countries as an attempt to “incorporate” these countries. First of all, if the countries apply for EU membership they will most likely counter enlargement fatigue, a pattern that has been simmering after the 2004 ‘big bang’ enlargement in most Western-European Member States. Also NATO membership is not likely to happen in the near future. It seems that the Baltic States, Poland and Romania remain the sole, staunch advocates of NATO membership of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Secondly, popular uprisings in Georgia (2003) in Ukraine (2004 and 2013-2014) were about much more than European integration exclusively. Electoral fraud, mounting corruption, declining social conditions and intensive Russian intermingling are much better indicators of popular discontent in these countries.
Democratic standards and levels of transparency in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are not yet perfect. Therefore, the AAs will not make those countries Member States of the EU, but they can help to improve the situation.
Our colleague Céline Delodder has written a thoughtful insight on looking to the Ukraine crisis through Russian (or Putin’s) eyes. Let us now try to view the situation through the lens of the Georgians, Moldovans and Ukrainians who have made a pro-European choice, a choice for democracy and the rule of law. Not necessarily a choice against Russia, but a choice against the fate of being dominated by the Kremlin and being ruled by semi-autocratic regimes. Ordinary citizens have made tremendous sacrifices for the sake of democracy. No, democratic standards and levels of transparency are not yet perfect. Therefore, the AAs will not make those countries Member States of the EU, but they can help to improve the situation. In addition, there is something for the EU to gain as well: indeed, new markets and trade, which can benefit all. It would be good if the Dutch citizens take all of this into account when they will cast their vote on 6 April 2016.