A clear majority of people who voted in a Dutch referendum have rejected a far-reaching European Union free trade deal with Ukraine.
Turnout was low, at 32.2 per cent, but above the 30 per cent threshold for the vote to be valid. The deal was rejected by 61.1 per cent of votes, compared with 38.1 per cent in favour.
Anti-Islam, anti-EU right-wing politician Geert Wilders tweeted: “It looks like the Dutch people said NO to the European elite and NO to the treaty with the Ukraine.”
He said this was “the beginning of the end of the EU”.
The vote highlighted a deep-rooted scepticism about the Netherlands’ place in Europe. The non-binding Dutch vote came less than three months before British citizens decide in their own referendum whether to leave the EU.
The Netherlands is a founding member of the EU, a trading nation that benefits from its internal market, but paradoxically also a hotbed of Euroscepticism which rejected the bloc’s proposed constitution in a 2005 referendum.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said: “If the turnout is above 30 per cent, with such a big victory for the ‘No’ camp, you can’t just go ahead and ratify the treaty.”
However, Mr Rutte said he would not be rushed into action, saying he wanted to discuss the result in his Cabinet, at the European Union and in the Dutch Parliament, a process that could take “days, if not weeks”.
The referendum was the first in the Netherlands since the 2005 rejection of the EU constitution and was forced by a loose coalition of Eurosceptics that managed to gather nearly 430,000 signatures in just six weeks last year.
Most often, deals like this are ratified by the governments of the 28 EU members, without any referendums. Mr Wilders said he hoped the vote would give hope to other nations questioning their place in Europe.
After casting his ballot at a school on the outskirts of The Hague, Mr Wilders said the Dutch referendum could act as an incentive to British voters to reject the EU in June. “So it could be today that is the start of the end of the European Union as we know it today, and that would be very good.”
Dutch opponents of the EU-Ukraine association agreement argued that its ultimate goal is bringing Kiev into the EU, and said the bloc should not be dealing with Ukraine’s leadership because of the widespread corruption in the country.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has been accused of abusing his office and evading taxes by moving his business offshore, possibly depriving the country’s coffers of millions of dollars.
Mr Poroshenko’s rise to power began after Ukrainians rose up against their government in February 2014 because of then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the association agreement.
Supporters of the deal said it is not a membership stepping stone and would boost trade and help battle corruption and improve human rights in the former Soviet republic.
They also say it is important for the EU to implement such agreements to boost stability at its borders.
Ukrainian ambassador to the Netherlands, Olexander Horin, called the agreement a “plan for reforms which Ukraine has to execute in order to become a really civilised, liberal democracy with socially-oriented market economy”.