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29 February, 2016  ▪  Anna Korbut

Fear to say “Yes”

Democraten-66 MPs about the upcoming referendum on EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and their Yes campaign in the Netherlands

Democraten-66 is a social-liberal and progressive party in the Netherlands with representation both in the national parliament, and the European Parliament. It supported ratification of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, as well as the Advisory Referendum Act earlier. It is within the latter’s framework that the Netherlands will have the referendum on association with Ukraine on April 6. Now, the party is actively involved in a Yes campaign in support of the parliament’s decision to ratify the association. Last week, Alexander Pechtold, parliamentary leader of D66 in the House of Representatives, and Kees Verhoeven, member and campaigner for the party, visited Ukraine to meet with local politicians, experts and activists. The Ukrainian Week asked them what voters in the Netherlands know about Ukraine, the motives of the Association Agreement opponents, and whether there is a chance to change the current balance of votes for and against it.  

How do the Dutch perceive Ukraine?

Alexander Pechtold: The summer of MH17 made many Dutch people aware that there is Ukraine, earlier perceived as just one of those former soviet republics. Prior to that, there had been far less awareness of our relations. Few people know, for instance, that Ukraine is bigger than France. Since people in the Netherlands don’t know much about Ukraine, they perceive it neutrally. They have worries, but those are not specifically about Ukraine. Rather, they are about Eastern European countries in general, about corruption. There is actually strong focus on that in the Netherlands now, as the campaign is starting: in the No camp they say that it’s a different mentality which we don’t need. That it’s black and white choosing between Moscow and Kyiv.

In my party, the Yes camp, we are trying to provide more arguments.

How is Russia seen then?

A.P.: In the Netherlands, more and more people are becoming aware of the role Moscow is playing internationally – in Syria, and countries like Ukraine. Also, the awareness of things like energy is growing. We know that unless we switch to sustainable energy, we will be taken hostage by Mr. Putin or the Arabs with their oil.

We make plans about switching to renewable energy, but plans are on paper, and so they are left to wait. I’m not happy with the steps we are taking in that regard.

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After a couple of days in Ukraine, what would you tell about the country back in your country?

A.P.: For me, it’s really a fact finding mission. We spoke to many politicians, as well as prime minister and president. We also spoke to NGOs, people on the Maidan square. And we learned a lot about their position towards the Agreement on which the referendum will be held. It’s not about becoming member of the EU or money. They tell us that they want to keep up with European values and standards.

Kees Verhoeven: These days around especially the younger people from NGOs, Parliament, have shown that they are really looking for change, and they say it’s an irreversible process; that they don’t want to go back to Soviet times, but towards Western values. They are really fighting for that. They really seek change. That impressed me a lot. I think it is important to show in the campaign in the Netherlands the will of Ukrainian people to finally break through corruption, change old institutions into new ones, and gain a new level of freedom.

A.P.: Maybe we focus too much on corruption. Meanwhile, there are also positive things that we can talk about as well. Also, the fact that one can talk about corruption and steps to be taken about it with politicians so openly is something that is missing in a lot of countries where you can’t even tell the word to politicians face to face because it is seen as something impolite.

What would you expect Ukrainians to show or say in order to persuade the Dutch to not fear association and free trade with Ukraine as something hostile? What arguments would you need from us to boost the Yes campaign in the Netherlands?

K.V.: Ukrainians can say that the Association Agreement is a way for Europe to help them in improving the situation, modernizing their institutions, fighting corruption, dealing with human rights issues, treatment of minorities. They only have to tell the Dutch people that they are really looking for change and are ready for democracy. That it’s not something we want them to have, but they want to have it themselves. And if they can convince us, they can also convince more people in the Netherlands with their passion and struggle to make their lives freer, better, with more opportunities to do what they love to do. Those are the things that should be communicated to the Dutch people.

A.P.: And personal stories. Referenda in the Netherlands are all about diplomats and politicians, the voters are fed up with that. But when it’s about personal stories, it’s a different matter.

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Do you have any specific steps that you plan to take in the run-up to the referendum?

K.V.: We are having a website where we publish various facts. We are also going to show young Ukrainian people, as well as our businessmen back in our country, who tell us why it is so important for them to take steps provided for by the Association Agreement.

We’ll show the faces of the Ukrainian people in order to bring the country closer to the Netherlands. There is distance, particularly the mental distance, but with faces and stories of Ukrainian people you have a chance to overcome that gap.

Have you seen efforts on the Ukrainian side to explain themselves and their country to the Dutch lately?

A.P.: The two people the Dutch associate with your country are Victoria Koblenko, a well-known actress, and Yevhen Levchenko, a football player, both from Ukraine.   

But the way your President showed compassion about what happened after MH17 – when he came to our Embassy, knelt down and prayed - that is seen in the Netherlands. It’s felt.

Ukrainians tend to think that the reason for which the referendum is taking place in April is more about Euroskepticism than it is about Ukraine. Is that true?

Yes. The new Dutch referendum law (Advisory Referendum Act – Ed.) that makes referenda possible in the Netherlands came into effect in July 2015. Those who are skeptical about the EU or against it were simply seeking the first opportunity to have referendum about. It needs to be something that the Parliament took decision on. And the first such thing turned out to be the Association Agreement with Ukraine. Our Parliament voted on it. That’s why they initiated the referendum on this topic. In a way, Ukraine could in this case be seen as a victim of selective choice. This is sad.

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How would you describe the voters who are anti-Association Agreement?

These are first of all people who are fed up with the EU. They believe that the EU only does bad things without listening to ordinary people and takes decisions without knowing what effect they will have. There is also a group that has a conspiracy feeling about the EU.

One has to listen to these sentiments and think about whether it is acceptable for the EU to take so many decisions. On the other hand, however, we have the European Parliament elected by the Dutch people. We have national leaders who are in very influential positions at the European Council and can look at things from the perspective of benefits for the Netherlands.

There is also a group of people who are afraid of what’s happening in the world, terrorists blowing up people in Paris and elsewhere, lots of refugees coming to Europe, geopolitical tensions close to the EU borders. So, many think: let’s go back to national controls. That will keep us safe; we know each other, we have influence, we are comparable people. We don’t have anything to do with Ukraine or other places in the world. And those people are just afraid – of Ukraine as well, as a country they don’t know.

Still, a lot of people are undecided. They are still thinking about whether they will vote, and maybe it’s better to stay at home and abstain. We have two messages to them: go and vote on April 6. Don’t think that it may be better to stay at home because as a result the referendum may have a turnout lower than 30%, the amount necessary for the valid outcome. And, secondly, if you’re going to vote, please inform yourself about what the facts of the Agreement are, and what the myths are. That’s something we as a party should facilitate: that people know what it’s all about. That it’s not about the EU being good or bad; or about leaving the EU, but about working together with Ukraine as a country on the border of the EU, which has a lot of challenges for the future, and helping them with the Association Agreement in not only trade, but in all sorts of values – the rule of law, democracy, human rights. If we bring over that message in a good way, it can be positive effect.

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Do you think it’s possible to convince the undecided in the two months left before the referendum?

It is. We were at 29% of those supporting association against 56% who opposed it in December. About two weeks ago, a poll in our biggest newspaper said that the yes camp went up to 40% against 60% of the opponents. Another finding was that there is a big group – 1/3 of all voters - of the undecided. They are open for information. And they are perceptive to new arguments.

Why did you decide to join this Yes campaign?

Our party is pro-referenda. And if your party is one of the forces that supported the law on referendum, then you should never be quiet in the first referendum.

Then, we are a pro-European and international party. We think that isolation never makes things better. So, we believe that cooperation with Ukraine is a good thing. We believe that reforms and progress will take place here in the coming years. Also, we voted for association with Ukraine in Parliament. If we did that, and there is a referendum on that decision, we should go to the voters, talk to them, and explain that, since we voted for it, we believe in it. 

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