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Saturday, 20 February 2016

The approaching Ukraine referendum in The Netherlands is a travesty of democracy as it should be. Yet, the cabinet of PM Rutte should finally start to take it seriously!

The referendum in The Netherlands about the Association Agreement of the EU with the Ukraine is a democratic monstrosity. The whole situation regarding this Association Agreement is much too complicated to decide about this with a simple ‘yes’or ‘no’, not even to mention the political implications of this event within Europe and outside.

Nevertheless, I despise the different attempts of the Dutch government and especially PM Mark Rutte to downplay this referendum now that it will be organized, by spreading a lot of political fog, while hoping to get an invalid referendum due to an insufficient attendance of the Dutch voters. 

It is the umpteenth proof that PM Mark Rutte acts like a political clown, who does not take his work, the European Union or his grassroots seriously at all.

In a few months, on 6 April 2016, the Dutch government will organize a referendum on the Association Agreement of the EU with Ukraine.

This referendum has been enforced by a pressure group called GeenPeil –closely connected with the extremely popular, rightwing, youth-oriented, provocation-journalism website GeenStijl – that managed to collect more than 400,000 signatures of Dutch citizens, who are – for various reasons – against this association agreement with Ukraine.

Their goal is to collect a Dutch democratically founded ‘No’ against the association agreement. Thus they will force the Dutch government and, as a matter of fact, the whole European Union to postpone the association agreement with Ukraine to eternity: an agreement which has already partially come into effect on January 1st, 2016.

GeenPeil reckons that a clear 'No' from a qualified majority of the Dutch population (i.e. more than 30% of the Dutch voters cast a vote in the referendum, of which more than 50% is against the treaty) will force the Dutch government to speak out a ‘veto’ against the agreement with Ukraine.

However, the Dutch government is in favour of this treaty, for reasons of new trade and cooperation with Ukraine and for the sake of not making a total fool of themselves in the European Union. In a way to put pressure on the Dutch debate, Jean Claude Juncker, the chairman of the European Commission, warned that a Dutch No-vote ‘would lead to a continental crisis within the EU’

This was an opinion that I dismissed as clear fearmongering and that will absolutely not help to change the opinion of the Dutch population in favour of the association agreement; rather to the contrary.

Nevertheless, the association agreement with Ukraine is a complicated political instrument with far-stretching implications, for both the EU, Ukraine and – on the other hand – Russia: 
  • For the EU the Association Agreement is like ‘lending a hand to Ukraine’ and opening the gates for cautious political and economic cooperation with that country, without directly offering a ‘one way street’ to full EU membership in due course;
  • The unstable political situation in the Ukraine, the strong influence from extremist rightwing parties and the ubiquitous corruption in that country make a stronger cooperation than the current association agreement virtually impossible at this moment, Yet, the EU does not want to offend Ukraine, by bluntly saying 'No' to increased cooperation;
  • On top of that, the EU does not want to dismiss the Ukraine as a political and economic partner for the future and it feels that it has obligations towards the country, since the radical events at Maidan square happened, in which some EU representatives – Dutch MEP Hans van Baalen and Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt – played a somewhat dubious role. 
  • At this moment the EU – and especially The Netherlands – is heavily involved in a war of nerves with Russia, about all the events that happened with respect to Crimea, the Donbass region and the terrible MH17 airplane attack. Therefore the EU is not averse of a certain amount of agitation against Russia, in order to show President Putin that his ‘sphere of influence’ is diminishing,in favour of the European Union;
  • This feeling that President Putin should be ‘put back in his kennel’ is shared and even reinforced by the Americans, who see the connection between the EU an Ukraine as a strategic interest, part of their strategy, which is strongly akin to ‘divide and conquer’; 
  • The Ukraine, on the other hand, seems to look at the Association Agreement as step one in an irreversible process towards full membership of the EU and – perhaps - the NATO;
    • With this step, it cocks a snook at ‘big brother’ Russia, which considers Ukraine to be its own ‘backyard’: a vassal state that should obey to the directives from Russia and the Kremlin. Besides that, Ukraine wants to be taken seriously itself; 
  • Russia sees Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU as a violation of their political and strategic claims on Ukraine. The country feels therefore increasingly isolated by the actions of the EU.
    • For the currently “propagandized”, suspicious and distrusting people in Russia, with on top of that their paranoid and power-hungry leader Vladimir Putin, it is hard to see the difference between the EU as a purely political/economic organization without imperialistic views and the NATO as a political-defense organization, which is actively looking for new friends and members among the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states, in order to diminish the Russian Sphere of Influence;                     
  • This is the reason that Russia sees all advances between the EU and Ukraine as a political and (almost) personal feud against the Kremlin, which should be challenged at all costs.

The effect of all these different positions and conflicting interests is that there is a full-blown propaganda war going on between the United States and Russia over this doomed referendum. A referendum, which has exceeded its initial purpose as ‘a simple decision about the Dutch stance regarding the association agreement of the EU with the Ukraine ’ and turned into a strategic political battlefield for the former superpowers.

That you can take this propaganda war very serious, is proven by the fact that the United States have organized – via the CIA and the American Embassy in The Netherlands – special press trips to Ukraine in the past months. Columnist Dirk-Jan van Baar  who was a participant in one of these trips – wrote this (translated) snippet about it in The Volkskrant:

In the beginning of February, I was on a press trip to Kiev and Lviv, on invitation of the American Embassy. This brings the score [for the Kremlin in this propaganda war – EL ] to 2-0. Yet, my experience with this kind of trips is that they bring you to places  where you never would have gone otherwise.  

And reputedly the Kremlin has even subsidized GeenPeil in its battle for the ‘No’ vote in The Netherlands. The following snippets come from HP/De Tijd:

The investigation follows on earlier statements of British government officials, who spoke of ‘a new cold war’ due to Russian interference on a scale formerly unheard of. An interference which is broader, deeper and more far-stretching than has been considered possible until know. The Russians wanted to gain political influence in France, The Netherlands, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. The latter country is popular among Russian spies as entry to the European Schengenzone.

An anonymous source spoke towards the British Telegraph, and stated that among the suspects [of having received Russian payments – EL] there are the initiators of GeenPeil, who achieved to organize a referendum about the association agreement.

When this story is indeed true, the Kremlin must have recognized the full potential of this firebrand club GeenPeil (with in the background GeenStijl) and their grassroots of angry youngsters and worried elder citizens, who regard the association agreement, but also the EU as a whole, as dangerous with respect to their slightly nationalistic [and to these eyes very narrow - ELvision on The Netherlands.

And so it happened that what started as a referendum against the association agreement with Ukraine, turned soon into a referendum against the European Union as a whole, in which the association agreement was nothing more than a trigger.

Personally, I consider this referendum a travesty of democracy. As the different political positions and conflicting interests in the aforementioned bullet list already show, the whole situation surrounding the Association Agreement is really complicated and politically extremely sensitive (even explosive), with large implications for all parties involved.

One simply cannot decide upon a very complicated situation with large, political consequences with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, without simplifying the problem definition and the whole political environment of it beyond recognization. 

In other words, this whole darn referendum should have never been organized in the first place, in my humble opinion. Yet, the referendum is now a fact of life and as a consequence of that sheer fact, it should be taken seriously by the Dutch government. It is a testcase for the Dutch cabinet Mark Rutte II to prove that it is indeed capable of managing such an important and politically flammable process as the referendum at hand.

Unfortunately, in the past Prime Minister Mark Rutte has not exactly excelled in valuing the political weight of situations correctly, in my humble opinion. With his carved out grin, his forced optimism and his platitudes often echoing the ‘vox populis’, he gained a lot of popularity among his liberal-conservative grassroots. Yet,his political gutfeeling and instincts seemed virtually non-existent in too many situations [I must admit that I’m ‘slightly’ biased against Mark Rutte – EL].

The most blatant example of Rutte’s lack of political sensitivity and instinct was his cooperation with Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom as silent partner in Cabinet Mark Rutte I, that should have never happened at all. 

In this cabinet, PM Mark Rutte was constantly trivializing the sometimes vicious attacks of Wilders against various minorities and political groups in The Netherlands, giving some of them the idea of being second rate citizens. In fact Wilders had Rutte on a leash in some situations, forcing Rutte to say things on behalf of Wilders that he did not want to say himself in those words.

And there are few signs that Rutte’s instinct has improved a lot since then.
Also in the case of the referendum upon the assocation agreement with Ukraine, the first signs with respect to the Rutte cabinet have not been very promising yet.

At first the Rutte Cabinet has tried to ignore the establishment of the referendum by GeenPeil. 

And after it became a fact of life – by reaching the 300,000 autograph threshold within the legally ordered period of time – he tried to downplay it by:
  • Not organizing a national debate about the association agreement and its consequences for The Netherlands and the European Union;
  • Not administering clear answers to the questions from the Second Chamber of Parliament about the consequences of a No-vote by The Netherlands, or at least by making the impression that he had seriously thought about the consequences of this topic;
  • By spreading a lot of political fog about the referendum itself and its importance for the European Union;
  • By not ordering equal facilities for this referendum, as normal national or regional elections would have had, leading to:
    • a strongly diminished number of open polling-stations on referendum day;
    • virtually no budget for public information
    • no govermental advertisements about the referendum on national television.

By doing so, Rutte made the impression that he hoped that the people would forget about the referendum on April 6, leading towards a lower attendance than the 30% threshold that is required to make the results of the referendum count.

The latest action of the Cabinet, which has leaked to the general public through commercial tv-station RTL, was the internal distribution of the cabinet’s strategy with respect to the referendum. I print here the pertinent snippets of this strategy.

The referendum is really not about the argument with Russia and Vladimir Putin. And don’t dare to use the referendum to utter your dissatisfaction about the EU or the flawed cabinet policy. This referendum is not meant for that. No: the Assocation Agreement is especially good for Dutch trade and the ‘common’ citizens of the Ukraine. That is the tendency of the leaked communication strategy of the cabinet with respect to the coming referendum.

“This cooperation agreement is in the interest of The Netherlands and Ukraine. It deals with easier trade and a democratic, free Ukraine”.  According to the communication strategy of the cabinet, it is about a normal trade agreement with a neighbour of the EU: Ukraine. Nothing more and nothing less. A ‘yes’ vote opens the door to ‘a market of 45 million people’ and hence, it is good for our economy.

The document contains ‘ready to take away’ answers to about every question that one can think of. “What will the cabinet do in case of a No?”. The standard answer that all politicians and spokespersons should administer is: "In case of a valid ‘No’, the cabinet will think about the road ahead and will speak about that with the parliament. The contents of the societal debate will play a key-role in that discussion’".

On the notoriously difficult if/then answers, like ‘What will happen when The Netherlands does not ratify the agreement, the standard diverting reaction is formulated:"This situation is unknown territory". This precooked answer appears no less than seven times in the 46 prepared queries and answers in the leaked communication strategy.

Dozens of famous Dutch people and opinion makers, who could convince people to vote ‘yes’, have been ‘mapped’ by the Cabinet. These people are called ‘relay stations’.  When you encounter formerly Ukrainian actress Viktoria Koblenko or football-player Evgeniy Levchenko: know that they are offering a favour to the Cabinet.

[Evgeniy Levchenko, by the way, adamantly denied in the media that he was such a relay station on behalf of the cabinet policy - EL]

According to GeenPeil, the association agreement is the beginning of a Ukrainian membership of the EU. PM Rutte is going to emphasize the opposite in the coming weeks:"I know the aspirations of some Ukrainian / European politicians, but The Netherlands is against a membership of Ukraine and has veto rights. The word ‘EU membership is nowhere mentioned in the agreement and is also not the goal of it”.

Everybody and their sister – including the cabinet – feels that the referendum can be used by the Dutch voters to utter their dissatisfaction with the EU and/or the cabinet policy. That is not for which it is meant, of course: “The referendum is about the association agreement with Ukraine. Not about the modus operandi of the EU. The voter and the referendum are both not helped with a discussion about a different topic. For what is your vote than anyway?!”

I don’t know what is worse: this crippled media strategy by the cabinet itself or the circumstance that it has leaked to the media in a matter of days (or even hours)? 

The fact is that this strategy is never really serious about what is at stake with that referendum, including the geopolitical consequences and the position of The Netherlands within the EU. The given that the Cabinet rather prefers the expression 'cooperation agreement' than association agreement, "because association is such a difficult word" (see the whole text behind the link), is a tell-tale signal  of the disdain of the cabinet for both the association agreement and their grassroots.

For me that is really a confirmation of the fact that it is impossible for Mark Rutte to shake off his clown costume and start with being a serious prime minister. That is worrisome in the current very tense geopolitical situation.

Even though I was against this referendum – for the aforementioned reasons – I hope that everybody will cast a vote with his heart and brain, to show that the Dutch population takes politics more serious than their Prime Minister does. 

In this way we will force the PM to finally stop with spreading fog and start governing the nation, like he is supposed to be!

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