The Dutch Vote for Putin

Thomas Lahey is a student at the Catholic University of America and aspiring jurist.

It is by no means an exaggeration to guess that Putin was watching the election results from the Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine more closely than he watches what’s happening with the US Presidential election. Let’s not pretend that this is not a serious blow to the European Union, as non-binding a referendum as it may be. Europe’s leaders such as Merkel, Hollande, Cameron and even Rutte have staked a lot of their political capital on supporting Poroshenko’s government in Kyiv and opposing Putin’s war games, no matter how cheaply he’s willing to sell them oil.

By rejecting the EU’s trade association with Ukraine, Dutch voters expressed their frustration with the status-quo in Europe, even if the result turns out to be futile. It goes without saying that Putin would have felt emboldened by the referendum’s result. After all, his ultimate aim is to divide and conquer Europe. Perhaps not conquer in the military sense, but certainly with economics and politics.

The leader of Dutch rightwing party PVV Geert Wilders casts his vote in The Hague, in a non-binding referendum on an EU cooperation deal with Ukraine | Martijn Beekman/AFP via Getty Images

The leader of Dutch rightwing party PVV Geert Wilders casts his vote in The Hague, in a non-binding referendum on an EU cooperation deal with Ukraine | Martijn Beekman/AFP via Getty Images

This treaty was, perhaps not directly but otherwise, about EU enlargement. Timothy Ash, the London-based head of Central Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa credit strategy for Nomura International, is concerned about candidates for EU accession and what will happen when it comes back to vote to support their membership-bid. Writing for Kyiv Post, he says, “This is not only a blow to Ukraine, but… Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova, Georgia, Montenegro, Turkey and Kosovo. This vote now raises serious questions about whether the enduring peace in the Balkans will last. By this vote, Europe just got much less secure and it got more dangerous”.

The region most at risk of succumbing to Putin’s control is the Balkans. Of the Western Balkan countries, Serbia and Montenegro have started seriously negotiating membership in the past few months, Albania is an official candidate but has not started talks. In June 2015, the EU finally ratified Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Stabilization and Association Agreement, seen as an important step towards candidacy. Kosovo’s agreement entered into force on April 1. Macedonia has been a candidate since 2005, but negotiations have been blocked by a Greek veto over the countries’ long-running name dispute. The process of EU accession for the Western Balkans is lengthy — with Montenegro expected to be the next member, in 2020 at the earliest, and Serbia some time after, maybe 2022.
EU membership is supported by the majority in all countries, and the vast majority in some.
Much of the support for Brussels stems from the EU’s support for the peace process in the region since the mid-1990’s. The EU has resolved disputes between Serbia and Kosovo, helped tackle public corruption in Bosnia and worked closely with Macedonia on stemming the flow of refugees in the past months. All of these countries have pro-Moscow ultra-nationalist parties and allowing them to fold back into Russia’s sphere of influence because EU-28 countries are not united on enlargement policy would be a disaster.

More generally, investors regard the economic, judicial and regulatory reforms and constitutional change necessary for membership as strong upsides for the region, and political consensus on eventual membership central to political stability. EU membership will make these countries more open, democratic and prosperous, as has been the case for other former Eastern Bloc countries like Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Baltic States. The Western Balkan states would have little reason to ally themselves with Moscow when they can export and import without barriers to a market of over 500 million consumers.

A senior Serbian official told POLITICO Europe, “The [Dutch] referendum is a terrible thing, possibly ominous, given the chain of events that could have been started. If a voice of anti-enlargement is given this kind of power, of course Euroskeptics and enlargement-skeptics everywhere are going to want the same power.”

The geopolitical ramifications for “Nee” are monumental. Putin will feel emboldened by what could be described as an endorsement of the status-quo in security relations in Europe, given that Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are still out of Kyiv’s governance. Hopefully, the European Commission is able to continue with the Association Agreement in a timely manner to avoid any serious fallout from this likely disastrous situation. If Brexit happens, then Putin will certainly feel the need to step up his divide and conquer strategy in Europe, maybe give more money to Le Pen’s National Front, Wilder’s PVV or the AFD in Germany. Only time will tell, but this could have and should have been avoided. Pro-Europeans need to step up the case for the European Union, and fast, before it’s all gone.

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