Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Other Referendum

Morning Star readers will understandably be focused on Britain’s referendum on EU membership, to be held on June 23.

On April 6, however, a referendum will take place in the Netherlands in which the Dutch people will have the chance to vote not to leave the European Union but to reject a specific EU treaty. 

In its own way this is as extraordinary as a people being given the opportunity to say whether or not they want to stay or go.

And, though we can’t of course vote, while the British media have almost entirely ignored the issue, the result will be of tremendous importance to our future. 

The treaty in question is what’s known as an Association Agreement. The EU has such agreements with many countries, including most of its neighbours. 

They vary enormously, however, in their contents and thus in how deeply they affect lives of the peoples of the parties involved.

They can be — and usually are — simple trade agreements, but they can also be seen as stepping stones towards full EU membership.

The Association Agreement with Ukraine is one of the furthest-reaching ever. It provides for very close political, economic and even military co-operation. 

As a binding accord with a country outside the union, an Association Agreement must be approved by all of the member states. 

This has already occurred, but in the Netherlands there is a law which states that if 300,000 people sign a petition demanding it, a referendum must be held.

This was achieved on an initiative from a group of opponents of the agreement, and the government had no choice but to call and fund a referendum.

The referendum will be consultative, but in the context of Dutch politics any attempt to ignore the result would be extremely controversial, though it will only count if over 30 per cent of the 13 million or so eligible voters turn out. 

As things stand this seems likely to be achieved, and polls show voting intentions almost split down the middle. 

No-one in the Yes camp has suggested that a No vote will not be respected, while pressure from the EU to overturn it will push the Dutch people further towards a position of rejecting the European Union lock, stock and barrel. 

When in 1997 I campaigned against the introduction of the euro with the Dutch Socialist Party — a radical left, EU-critical party — it warned me that to call for actual withdrawal would mean that no-one would take us seriously. 

The SP’s opposition to the euro, and what has happened since, has certainly contributed to the fact that while it then had two MPs, it now has 15, a tenth of the total number. 

It also explains why a recent poll showed that a majority want a referendum on EU membership, and that well over four in 10 now want out. 

The Dutch people are unlikely to be given the chance to vote on actual membership just yet, but they do have the opportunity to derail this treaty, one which it is imperative — in our interests as well as their own and those of the Ukrainian people — that they seize with both hands. 

Bringing the corrupt, war-torn Ukraine into the already bloated and ramshackle union hardly seems a credible project. 

Yet while leading supporters of a Yes vote in the Netherlands deny that the Association Agreement will represent a stepping stone towards EU membership, President Petro Poroshenko and members of his government have made it clear that they disagree. 

Poroshenko has said on several occasions that he wants to see his country in the EU and Nato by 2020, and told the Polish parliament at the end of 2014 that he was “dreaming of the moment when after I end my presidency I will have a chance to run in elections to the European Parliament.” 

Neither the people of the Netherlands, nor those of any other EU member state, would gain anything from intensified co-operation with such a divided, corrupt and failed country. 

The agreement would risk dragging them — and us — into the dangerous conflict which has half the country at the other half’s throat. 

In Ukraine itself, only the corrupt and the very wealthy would be winners. The EU itself is not, of course, taking a low profile in the debate leading up to the April 6 vote. 

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is actively campaigning and has told Dutch voters to “watch out!” 

Claiming that he does not “want to threaten citizens,” he adds, however, that “they must indeed be made conscious of their responsibilities.” 

I agree with that at least, which is why they really have to vote No. Why? I’ll summarise the reasons. 

First, almost 10,000 people have died in the country in a bitter civil war which this agreement can only exacerbate, while over two million have been forced to flee their homes, half of whom have sought refuge in Russia. 

Second, the treaty is yet another neoliberal charter designed to give corporate capital access to 45 million new consumers. 

The goods and services they will buy won’t be supplied by Ukrainian firms, because the Association Agreement includes a ban on state aids, so many will be driven out of business, deprived of the assistance they need to modernise and restructure to compete on the European market. 

State-owned companies such as Naftagaz will be bought up by venture capitalists, and their employees and EU taxpayers will in different ways pay the price. 

Third, most of the financial support given to Ukraine by the EU (which means, of course, by you and me) will go straight into the pockets of corrupt oligarchs. 

Ukraine is measurably the most corrupt country in Europe and nothing in the Association Agreement will tackle this, while EU funds will add swill to the trough. 

Relations between Russia and Europe have already become dangerously confrontational. 

Russia will quite rightly feel threatened by this agreement, and the co-operation which would benefit all parties bar the corrupt oligarchs, neoliberal plunderers and far-right madmen will be set back once again.

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