nizozemska zastava.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Tom Jutte, used under CC BY-ND

The Dutch electorate has rarely been confronted with a dilemma like this. Wednesday's referendum on Ukraine's Association Agreement with the European Union has many in the Netherlands in two minds on which way to vote and on whether to vote at all.

The agreement went into effect in part on January 1. Both houses of the Dutch parliament passed the necessary acts by large majorities. But that does not suffice for ratification.

A eurosceptic initiative has drummed up more than 400,000 signatures to force the Netherlands into its first application of the Advisory Referendum Act, which went into force in mid-2015.

The question is: Why should a trading nation like the Netherlands want to block an agreement whose centrepiece is a free-trade agreement?

Last year Dutch exports to Ukraine totalled 650 million euros (725 million dollars), and Dutch business is looking to increase that considerably.

The agreement also aims to buttress democracy in Ukraine, reduce its dependence on Russia and fight endemic corruption.

For their part, the agreement's opponents in the Netherlands see it as the first step to Ukrainian membership of the EU, even though this is not mentioned at all in the agreement's text. There is rising concern on this score among the increasingly eurosceptic Dutch.

A closer look at the objectives of the action committee reveals a different motivation. It is clearly hoping for the Dutch people to send out an anti-EU signal, as they have done in the recent past.

The Ukraine agreement is juxtaposed with the Greek crisis. "Our surplus makes good their shortfall," it says on the website of GeenPeil, the organization leading the no campaign whose name can be translated as No Standard, or No Level.

It criticizes what it sees as the EU's obsession with expansion. "In Ukraine, the signing of the agreement on June 27, 2014, was one of the most important causes of the disagreement with Russia and the civil war that then broke out in the east of the country," it says.

Another driving force behind the referendum, Thierry Baudet, takes a similar view. "The agreement causes division. It is a source of the conflict," he says.

The outcome of the referendum is by no means clear. Opinion polls initially showed a large majority for the no camp, although more recent polling has revealed those intending to vote yes gaining ground to approximate parity.

Many people have not yet decided whether they will vote at all, and some are calling for a tactical abstention, as the referendum is valid only if at least 30 per cent of the electorate bothers to vote.

Biology teacher Janneke Visser is in two minds. "I'm in favour, but if I vote, then these idiots will get to 30 per cent."

And Amsterdam news agent Jan ten Brink is one of the many not to have read the agreement's 394 pages. "I don't know the contents of the agreement at all," he says.

The two camps are canvassing for votes with broadcast spots and newspaper adverts. "Say no to the over-powerful EU," and "Yes to counter Putin's aggression," sum up the tenor of the campaign.

One inventive entrepreneur has had the opposing arguments printed on thousands of toilet rolls.

The coalition government is largely keeping above the fray, emphasizing only that the agreement will boost trade and stability in Eastern Europe.

Ukrainians in favour of the agreement have been less reticent. One delegation after another has visited the Netherlands: business representatives, members of the Ukrainian parliament, members of civil rights movements are all urging the Dutch to vote yes.

In November, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited for talks, paying his respects to King Willem-Alexander.

Even though it is non-binding, the vote could have far-reaching repercussions. A valid no vote would be a huge embarrassment for the Netherlands, coming in the middle of its six-month EU presidency.

Memories of the Dutch rejection of the EU constitution in 2005 are still fresh.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte is hoping for a yes vote. "The agreement contributes to strengthening our economy, to strengthening the Dutch trading position," he said days before the poll.

Rutte has refused to speculate on the government's response to a negative outcome beyond saying that the result will be considered seriously.

If the government bows to a no vote, the agreement will collapse, leading European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to warn: "A no may open the door to a major continental crisis."

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