A month after the Dutch political fringe claimed victory in a referendum that rejected the European Union’s association agreement with Ukraine, rumors of a “Russian hand” in the campaign that influenced voters to sabotage Ukraine’s European integration still swirl.
Can this referendum really be chalked up as a Russian triumph? Or is there an altogether more worrying lesson to be drawn?
No doubt Russia was overjoyed at the outcome. Its response was predictably supportive of the democracy it usually abhors.
“The referendum in the Netherlands is a logical reaction to the EU’s foreign policy that disregards the opinion of the EU people,” said the Foreign Ministry.
Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, stuck it to Kiev, tweeting that the results “indicate Europeans’ opinion of the Ukrainian political system.”
This anti-EU sentiment is hardly surprising. Russia’s strategy in Europe has forever been the downfall of the European order that binds and excludes it and, more importantly, the severing of Europe’s Atlantic artery — doing away with institutions like NATO and the pesky security guarantees its progenitor, the United States, offers to many of Russia’s neighbors.
This referendum will complicate EU foreign policymaking and come as a welcome boost to the continent’s burgeoning “insurgents”: the chronically disenchanted who today are raging against the “powers that be” all across the Western world.
If the leader of the Netherlands’ nationalist Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, is to be believed, it might even mark the “beginning of the end of the EU.”
It’s difficult to say that Russia did nothing at all to influence this outcome. Many of the reasons given by Dutch voters for opposing Ukraine’s association agreement pay homage to narratives that Russia has been aggressively pushing since the Euromaidan protests.
Corruption was key, with 59 percent of voters citing it as a reason to reject the treaty. Ukrainian corruption is not a Russian conspiracy for sure, as certain Ukrainian politicians would have you believe, but it is a central plank of Russia’s strategy for discrediting Ukraine’s revolution.
On a more sinister note, conspiracy theories about the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014 — aboard which 193 Dutch citizens died — proliferated in the run-up to the referendum. 19 percent of voters cited it as their main reason for voting “no”.
Unlike enduring corruption among Ukraine’s elites, these conspiracies are almost all the work of the Kremlin and aim squarely at distracting from the now-incontrovertible evidence that MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian fighters using equipment supplied by Russia.
The larger point, of course, is that Russia brazenly invaded its neighbor while continuing to demand that Europe be more accommodating of Russia and its ways — or else.
Indeed, 26 percent of those who opposed the association agreement said they feared it would further upset Europe’s relations with Russia.
Sharing in the cowardice of their convictions is Bart Nijman, an editor at the GeenStijl blog which lobbied the Dutch government to hold the referendum. Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald, Nijman worried that ratifying the agreement “might anger Putin even more and you never know what that will lead to.”
The key takeaway from this referendum should be that, clearly, Europe doesn’t need a wolf-at-the-door figure like Russia in order to tear itself apart. Europeans are quite happy to do this themselves and their governments — ever haunted by accusations of a “democratic deficit” — are increasingly enabling them to by agreeing to conduct complex foreign policy via referenda.
The implications of the Dutch referendum may be limited. Much of the agreement has entered into force already and would require unanimity to repeal. There is talk of a Dutch opt-out in the form of an “adjusting protocol,” which sounds like a typical European fudge.
With Britain due to decide in a referendum of its own whether to stay in the European Union or not, though, the Dutch “no” really does matter.
Yes, Russia actively seeks to undermine European unity by any and all means, but it is Europe’s own problems with political disillusionment, with rapid social change and with a lack of vision that make playing “the insurgent” so critically appealing. Ultimately these problems are a far greater threat to European order than is Russia.