“EU or bust?” is the wrong question for Ukraine


What was missing in the Dutch referendum on the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine?


Alona Liasheva
12 April 2016

On 6 April in the Netherlands, just over 30% of potential voters took part in a referendum on the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. This was one of numerous Free Trade Area Agreements established between the EU and countries all around the world, from Mexico to Mozambique. Less than two years ago, president Petro Poroshenko signed this agreement, and since that time has been partially implemented. It was ratified by all the EU-member states and, for the most part, garnered no political response from the public, with the exception of the Netherlands. Here, a liberal-right political initiative, GeenPeil, launched a collection of signatures calling for a referendum on ratification of the Agreement. 

The following question, which brought thousands of Ukrainians out into the streets in late 2013-2014 and started the EuroMaidan protests against the previous Ukrainian government, which was not ready to turn from Russia towards the European Union, was posed to the Dutch public: “Are you in favour or against the Approval Act of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine?” The outcome of the referendum was stressful for supporters of Ukraine’s “Eurodream” on both sides of the Schengen border: almost 62% of voters were against the Agreement.

Why “Yes”?

The first contradiction of “Europeanness” revealed by the debates around the referendum is that of the centre-periphery. It could be read between the lines of the YES arguments from both the Dutch and Ukrainian sides. The motivation of those Dutch voters who decided to vote in favor of the agreement, while framed in similar language, radically differs from that of the Ukrainians who supported it in the EuroMaidan protests.

Maidan Bandura.jpg

Here is why: Ukrainians willing to become more “European” were assigned a lower position in this dialogue. Similar to Moldova, Albania, Algeria or Georgia in agreements of the same type, Ukraine was an object in a broader EU economic and political strategy. The “Eurodream”: Ukrainians take to the streets under EU flags. Photo CC: Ivan Bandura / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.One of the main arguments for YES underpins this point. One of its most striking formulations was the command: “Do not let Putin redraw the map of Europe”. The reasoning in this slogan shows a neo-imperialist attitude towards Ukraine, which negates any possibility for Ukraine to be an independent actor in international relations. In fact, the perception of one of the biggest countries on the European map as a puppet in the EU’s international policies does not differ from the position of Russian elites on Ukraine.

But apart from the geopolitical debates on “whose Ukraine is it?” some arguments tried to bring Ukrainian interests into the game by focusing on the fact that Ukrainians aim to be closer to the EU. Indeed, a lot of Ukrainians see this agreement (and always have) as a step towards joining the EU or at least toward the visa-free regime promised by the Ukrainian government. However, they do not necessarily analyse what the agreement is actually about, or uncritically assume that open borders for trade is going to benefit the Ukrainian economy.

The only thing left for Ukraine in this story is to jump out of the Russian frying pan into the European fire Rather than fulfilling these hopes for the protection of human rights (including European regulations on gender equality and LGBT rights) fighting corruption and reaching higher living standards, the agreement only offers the Free Trade Area. The sections discussing human rights, fighting corruption and a visa-free regime make up less than 5% of the text and are formulated in as vague recommendations, not rules. In contrast, the bulk of the agreement is made up of sections introducing new trade regulations, which are not in favour of the Ukrainian working class.

Netherlands referendum_0.png

Instead of development in economic and cultural spheres, Ukrainians are seeing a fall in GDP, cuts to an already weak social welfare system and EU support for a corrupt, human rights-violating, pro-war government. That’s what a periphery deserves. Electoral map of the Netherlands. Green: in favour of the association agreement, red: against. Photo CC: FurFur / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.However, in spite of the threats the agreement poses for the majority of Ukrainians, we still rhope that selling our raw materials and agricultural products to EU member states will in the end bring some benefits. The main reasons for the blind Euro-optimism of Ukrainians is absence of any kind of alternative, apart from Russia which is trying to compete with the EU for its influence on Ukraine, but by a far more aggressive strategy. 

Supporters of the agreement are playing the game established by the global elites, a game in which only the elites are going to win, taking control over one or another territory.

The only thing left for Ukraine in this story is to jump out of the Russian frying pan into the European fire. 

But there were forces which said NO to this agreement. What was their argument?

Why “No”?

The second contradiction of “Europeanness” was raised by the referendum itself: the impotence of the EU’s democratic institutions to exhibit even a trace of diversity of attitudes from different political camps. 

The NO vote came from two different camps. Unsurprisingly, they were the radical right and the radical left. A facile conclusion could be made from the fact that the right and the left “agree” on this question: namely, that there is no significant difference between the right and left. Not the most clever conclusion to draw. The overlapping of the right and left responses to some questions (do not forget that the right in Greece also supported OXI) instead highlights the weakness of YES/NO referendums as tools for democracy.


The two-options model hides the reasoning behind YES or NO vote. Although referendums are often perceived as the triumph of democracy, this form of the expression of public opinion is an extreme generalisation of social processes and are often used as a tool of manipulation by this or that political group. In this referendum, it was used by the right.  Dutch TV channel NOS reports on the referendum, 2 February 2016. Image still via Harry van Bommel / YouTube. Some rights reserved.Typically for much right-wing argumentation, the anti-agreement rhetoric was built on the idea of protecting the Netherlands from threats Ukraine could bring. In short – corruption, war, migrants. These arguments are built on fear, neocolonial attitudes and migrant-phobia, if not outright racism. There is no need to explain why they have nothing to do with so called “European” values. So we come to the third contradiction: democracy versus the rise of right-wing movements in Europe.

Along with the right-wing NO, there was an attempt to establish an alternative critique of the agreement. The left argument for NO was based on internationalism – perception of Ukraine as a subject, not an object in this agreement, opposition to the Free Trade Areas and the consequences for the peripheral countries being involved in them, criticism of the corruption of Ukrainian elites hiding their capital in letter-box companies, significant part of which are located in the Netherlands.

Attempts to protect a country from global elites do not offer an alternative, but preserves the social problems under the rule of the local elites, who can be even more repressive

In general, this position was the most progressive in the debate (and obviously supported by the author). But the attempt to be critical and bring arguments based on the interests of Ukrainian and Dutch workers failed for a part of the Dutch left. They made the same mistake as some of the German and other European “anti-imperialist” left-wing groups: they took a pro-Russian position on the Ukrainian question

What’s left for Ukraine?

Often the questions concerning geographical divisions (eg. the British, Catalan, Kosovar or Ukrainian questions) lead to a meaningless choice of which elite is to rule in which geographical unit. Though a lot of progressive forces tend to oppose transnational corporations opening up new markets and imperialist powers spreading political ambitions, at the end of the day even an attempt to protect a country from global elites is a position that does not offer an alternative, but rather preserves the social problems under the rule of the local elites, which can be even more repressive.

The real solutions of issues of geographical division can come only by turning the question “EU or Russia?” upside down and instead asking: “The EU, Ukrainian and Russian elites or the people of Europe, Ukraine and Russia?” This can be done only by creating networks of solidarity between the oppressed of all of the those territories. Yes, this might sound utopian, but ask yourself: is it more utopian than the hopes of Ukrainians to become members of the EU or the people of the Donbass benefitting from an alliance with Russia?

I think not.

The original version of this article appeared in LeftEast. We are grateful to the editors and author for permission to republish it here.

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