Rutte Persuades EU Leaders to Rule Out Membership for Ukraine

The Dutch prime minister hopes a promise to keep Ukraine out will satisfy Euroskeptics.

Other European leaders budged to pressure from the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte on Thursday to explicitly rule out future EU membership for Ukraine.

Rutte hopes the concession, together with assurances from the EU that is not committed to Ukraine’s defense, will be enough to persuade lawmakers at home to save an economic and security pact that Dutch voters rejected in a referendum in April.

Going into the European Council meeting in Brussels, Rutte warned that pulling out of the association agreement would be a “gift” to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Russia invaded Ukraine when the former Soviet republic was on the verge of signing a treaty with the EU in early 2014. It annexed the Crimean Peninsula and continues to prop up an insurgency in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region.

Anti-EU sentiment

Dutch attitudes toward the conflict are complicated.

On the one hand, there is little love for Russia in the country, which is widely blamed for the crash of a commercial airliner in the summer of 2014 in which 193 Dutch passengers were killed.

A Dutch investigation found that the plane had been downed by a Russian-supplied missile system.

On the other hand, the Dutch have grown wary of the EU. They voted down a proposed constitution for the bloc in 2005, only to see it come into force as the Lisbon Treaty anyway. A majority of Dutch voters also opposed the European bailouts for Greece, yet their government was unable to block them.

This anti-EU sentiment prevailed in the referendum. Even the groups that successfully petitioned for a plebiscite admitted their goal was not to keep Ukraine out, but rather to hasten the Netherlands’ exit from the EU.

Blue-red divide

Like the EU referendum in the United Kingdom, the Dutch vote revealed stark divisions: Big, multiethnic cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht voted overwhelmingly in favor of the treaty, as did their wealthy suburbs and university towns. Majorities in more working-class Rotterdam, small towns and rural municipalities voted against the pact.

Rutte and his liberal party are struggling to navigate this “blue-red” divide. Like center-right parties elsewhere, they are trying to lure Euroskeptic voters away from the far right without losing more pro-EU, typically higher-income voters to the center.

Elections are due in March. Predictions are Rutte will remain prime minister, even if the nationalist Freedom Party, which wants to take the Netherlands out of the EU, becomes the single largest party.