A referendum in the Netherlands on the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement / Photo from UNIAN

Dutch journalist: Euroskeptics would put to a referendum the issue of leaving the EU, but it is forbidden by law. So they took up the issue of Ukraine-EU Association Agreement.

On the eve of the referendum in the Netherlands on the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, which is so important for Ukraine, UNIAN interviewed a correspondent of Dutch television broadcaster NOS David Godfroid.

On April 6, a referendum will be held in the Netherlands in which the voters will be offered to say Yes or No on the issue of ratification of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. And the position of the whole European Union regarding Ukraine’s European integration largely depends on the outcome of this vote.

An UNIAN correspondent sat down with the reporter from Dutch public television, David Godfroid, to discuss the mood in Dutch society ahead of the referendum. For many years, he has worked in Moscow, covering events in the former Soviet Union, and personally visited Ukraine many times, reporting from both Maidan protests of 2004 and 2014. He also worked in occupied Crimea and Donbas. According to him, Ukraine has largely divided Dutch society, while his voting forecast is not too optimistic. Although the matter is, rather, not in the essence of the referendum, but in the growing Euroskepticism in the Netherlands.

David, can you tell us about the history of referenda in the Netherlands and why it is the only EU country where the issue of Association with Ukraine has been submitted to a popular vote?

The referendum law in Holland is still pretty young, and it was enforced in 2015. So this [the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement] is the first subject. By the way, it’s an advisory referendum, and the government is not obliged to follow the outcome of the vote. But anyhow, there was a group of people who initiated the referendum, and they admitted they are very much opposed to the European Union as a whole, because they think it’s very undemocratic. What these people have been looking for a subject to fit their goal. And the Association Agreement with Ukraine was actually the very first subject they ran into, it could have been anything else when it comes to the European Union. What they actually wanted was to put the question of whether the Netherlands should leave the EU, but it’s not possible in a referendum. One can only ask questions about laws or these kinds of agreements. The law requires 300,000 signatures for the government to organize a referendum, but by making a huge campaign, with the support of one of Holland’s most popular websites, they collected much more – nearly 450,000 signatures. So, the government was obliged to set up a referendum, and that’s where we are now.

What is this Geenpeil group about, which initiated the referendum? Who are these people?

Geenpeil are not the original initiators. There were a couple of individuals, they cooperated with a different group – a Committee of Civilians, then they founded it together with this website GeenStijl… Let’s say they are all from a part of society which is very much opposed to the European Union and the Dutch membership in it. The situation can be compared to that in the UK, where there’s also a discussion and there’s going to be a referendum on EU membership. But the Dutch law doesn’t allow for such kind of referendum, so they decided to put to a vote the Ukrainian issue so that they could show that they stand against the European Union’s policies.

Ukraine-EU Association Agreement / Photo from UNIAN

This group of people, this website started advocating that Ukraine is a poor and corrupt country, and the assistance to Ukraine will cost taxpayers an awful lot of money, and the Ukrainians will start coming in big numbers to Europe. Moreover, by incorporating Ukraine into Europe (although it’s not membership but they see it as such) we anger Russia.

And what does that Dutch society know about the events in Ukraine, especially as regards the last two years?

I always find it very difficult to say what the Dutch think about anything. Let's see what the result of the referendum is. If it’s going to be against the Association Agreement, it shows that a big part of the Dutch population doesn’t have confidence in what’s going on in Ukraine, either or not it is based on facts – that’s a different question.

I would say that the general feeling is not very positive about Ukraine.  Most people know that there was some kind of a revolution, the Maidan, they know that there is something called Crimea that is now Russian, and they know that there is something like a war going on in eastern Ukraine. But most of all, they know that a passenger plane with a lot of Dutch people crashed in eastern Ukraine.

It's very difficult for me to judge what general population thinks, and it’s difficult to say how the people who have an opinion on Ukraine think: whether their perception is based on facts, or on fears, or on propaganda.

In addition, it has been completely forgotten that Ukraine has a long history of revolting already has a long history of protests and revolutions against corruption, the oligarchs and nepotism in politics (as it was on the Maidan in 2004). The opinion of many opponents of the EU-Ukraine Association is that this has all been organized by the United States, by Soros, by God knows who. It seems as if it was beaten into their heads. They say the problems they see in Ukraine are caused first of all by the American influence and second of all by this association agreement.

Do the Dutch people understand that Ukraine is fighting Russia, and it was during the escalation of hostilities when the MH17 was shot down, which killed the Dutch passengers?

Part of the Dutch population understands that Ukraine is at war with Russia, but another part thinks that people in Crimea and eastern Ukraine revolted against Maidan. You can still see in many Dutch publications that there is a civil war instead of a war. As for the MH17, there has been a major investigation by the Dutch Safety Board which was inconclusive about who did it.

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You have repeatedly used the term "propaganda." Who is doing this propaganda in the Netherlands?

Everyone. Both supporters and opponents of the Agreement on the Ukraine-EU Association. What they come up with is extremely one-sided. The opponents try to paint Ukraine as black as possible, the supporters try to present Ukraine as some kind of heaven with only angels living there. There is hardly any serious discussion going on about the advantages, the good sides, as well as the disadvantages and the dangers of the agreement. Many tend to that the Association automatically leads to Ukraine’s membership in the European Union, which is not true.

So the supporters of Ukraine are cheering, saying that Ukraine should be welcomed and that a “No” vote would mean supporting Putin – that’s the argument they use the most. Meanwhile, the other side claims “there are fascists in Ukraine.” This is not an argument, but it gives people a sense of fear. And there is no exchange of ideas.

Six months ago nobody would have thought that the topic of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement would be discussed so actively in Holland. Ukraine divided Dutch society, and the gap is very deep. In my opinion, it shows that it’s more about the role of the European Union and the way the EU is governed, and also the role the Dutch government plays in that than it’s actually about the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. We have a lot of people thinking that our government accepts way too easy everything that comes from Brussels.

Where does this position of Ukraine as a "fascist state" come from? I think it's the very wording of the Russian TV. Is it in fact the effect of Russian propaganda?

I think it’s clear that this idea originates in Russia. The fact is that by the end of the Maidan, there were groups of people who expressed themselves quite violently and also wouldn’t mind being connected to extreme right-wing political ideas. But the original idea of stressing this without making a nuance that this is actually a small part of the population is wrong. I’ve been telling a hundred times on air speaking about Svoboda and Praviy Sector that they are nothing to be afraid of, as they are not represented in Parliament, they didn’t pass a threshold, and elections, as you know, is the real indicator of public support. Of course, these things are very easy to use if you want to make propaganda. It’s easy to understand that people are afraid of fascists and then say "they [Ukrainians] are fascists." It’s as simple as that.

From your words, it turns out that Russia influences public opinion in the Netherlands?

In a certain way, this is true. But it is also influenced by Brussels and Washington. And it all comes down to this very strange referendum. And I think that the outcome will be that the majority of Dutch people will vote against the Association Agreement...

Could Ukraine also influence public opinion in your country?

I don’t think so. In my opinion, the most stupid things Poroshenko could have done was stressing that the Association Agreement is the first step toward EU membership. He should have never said that. Although, when he was in the Netherlands, he didn’t say it. It’s not the question either or not Ukraine is going to be eventually a member of the European Union. But everybody who is against the Agreement says that this is a step toward full membership, then we will get a second Greece: there will be corruption, they will ask for millions and millions from our budget, from our taxpayers, and we are the ones who are going to suffer.

If your forecast comes true and the outcome of the referendum is negative, what will be the consequences for the EU-Ukraine Agreement given the fact that this is a non-binding referendum?

This is a difficult question, and I don’t have the answer. If the result is negative, the Dutch government will push for changes in the Agreement within the European Union to kind of pacify part of the people who are against it. For example, many people are supporting military cooperation with Ukraine, and many are against it. Such paragraphs can be deleted from the Association Agreement. It can go any direction. They can say that they take it as an advice but considering all the circumstances, they’ll say they are still going to ratify it. There will be huge pressure from Brussels to do so.

However, the coalition parties in the Netherlands know pretty well that if they despise a No vote and ratify the Association Agreement, that’s going to cost them at the next elections a lot.

Roman Tsymbaliuk, Moscow

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