Dutch Referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine


Today, Wednesday April 6th, citizens in the Netherlands can cast their votes in an unprecedented advisory referendum. The question put to a vote is whether the Dutch government should ratify the European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine or not. This blog provides some background of the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine and the lead up to today's referendum.

To start with the latter: The law enabling a referendum concerning a ‘treaty’ is fairly new. Since July 1st, 2015 it is possible for citizens to demand a non-binding referendum if the petitioners fulfill certain criteria. To begin proceedings one needs a treaty or law, approved by the Dutch Parliament, which is made subject of the proposed referendum. Hereafter, initiators of the referendum have four weeks to gather 10.000 signatures of eligible voters to start the initial proceedings. If they fail to meet this requirement the procedure stops directly. In case of fulfillment of the requirement, the “Dutch Election Commission” (comparable to the Federal Election Commission in the USA) confirms the result and the actual procedure starts. Proposers of the referendum then have six weeks to get a minimum of 300.000 signatures of Dutch eligible voters. In case of fulfillment of this second requirement and another confirmation of the “Dutch Election Commission” a date is proposed for the referendum.

In September 2015 it became clear that these two thresholds were met by the so-called ‘No Poll’ (‘GeenPeil’ in Dutch) -campaign after 427.000 Dutch citizens signed the petition to organize the referendum. The result of this referendum has to be considered by the Dutch government if a quota of 30 % of the total amount of eligible voters cast their votes; however, a rejection or appreciation of the association agreement is not binding upon the Dutch government. The referendum date was set by the Dutch government on April 6th 2016.

European Union - Ukraine Association Agreement

But what is at stake in next week’s referendum? As already mentioned above the question is whether or not the Dutch government should ratify the European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine. The European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement has the objective to establish a unique form of political association and economic integration between Ukraine and the European Union.[1] According to the European External Action Service (EEAS) the Association Agreement is the first agreement based on political association between the European Union and any of the Eastern Partnership Countries (ENP). The European Union stressed from the outset that the ENP remains distinct from the process of EU enlargement.[2]

The objectives of the Association Agreement are clearly stated in article 1 which reads as follows:

“1. An association between the Union and its Member States, of the one part, and Ukraine, of the other part, is hereby established.

2. The aims of this association are:

(a) to promote gradual rapprochement between the Parties based on common values and close and privileged links, and increasing Ukraine's association with EU policies and participation in programmes and agencies;

(b) to provide an appropriate framework for enhanced political dialogue in all areas of mutual interest;

(c) to promote, preserve and strengthen peace and stability in the regional and international dimensions in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter, and of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the objectives of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe of 1990;

(d) to establish conditions for enhanced economic and trade relations leading towards Ukraine's gradual integration in the EU Internal Market, including by setting up a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area as stipulated in Title IV (Trade and Trade-related Matters) of this Agreement, and to support Ukrainian efforts to complete the transition into a functioning market economy by means of, inter alia, the progressive approximation of its legislation to that of the Union;

(e) to enhance cooperation in the field of Justice, Freedom and Security with the aim or reinforcing the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

(f) to establish conditions for increasingly close cooperation in other areas of mutual interest”[3]

All 486 articles of the Association Agreement are summarized by the Delegation of the European Union in Ukraine on their website:

‘The Agreement focuses on support to core reforms, economic recovery and growth, and governance and sector cooperation in areas such as energy, transport and environment protection, industrial cooperation, social development and protection, equal rights, consumer protection, education, youth, and cultural cooperation.

The Agreement also puts a strong emphasis on values and principles: democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, a market economy and sustainable development.

There will be enhanced cooperation in foreign and security policy and energy.

It includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which goes further than classic free trade areas, as it will both open up markets but also address competitiveness issues and the steps needed to meet EU standards and trade on EU markets.

The Agreement will also highlight Justice, Freedom & Security issues which also include provisions on mobility.’[4]

Especially the DCFTA is of specific relevance because it already came into provisional effect on the first of January 2016; however, it will not be fully in force until all 28 EU member states ratify it. At this moment only six European countries need to ratify it, including the Netherlands. Even if more than 30% of the Dutch electorate votes and if there’s a voting result with a high percentage of ‘no’-votes, the Dutch government still can decide to ratify the European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine, as it is an advisory referendum. Nonetheless, a no-vote would have serious repercussions, not only for the image of Dutch foreign policy (as the Netherlands currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU), but also for the position of the Netherlands in European and international trade relations and for the international relations with Eastern Europe.


[1] Van der Loo, G., EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and deep and comprehensive free trade area: a new legal instrument for EU integration without membership, Leiden: Brill Nijhoff, 2016, p.2.

[2] Idem, p. 3. Also: European Commission, ‘Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on Strengthening the European Neighborhood Policy, COM (2006) 726 final, 4 December 2006, p.2.

[3]European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine, http://eeas.europa.eu/ukraine/pdf/1_ua_preamble_en.pdf, last accessed March 30, 2016.

[4] http://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/ukraine/eu_ukraine/association_agreement/index_en.htm last accessed March 31, 2016.