A Stalking Horse for Nexit

Glen Newey

Springtime for Europe. Magnolia buds jut from the bough, and the Netherlands is gripped by Euro-referendum fever. Or, if 'fever' is too strong, the vibe in Amsterdam's smokeasies is at least lightly tousled. For we're talking not of the UK's in/out poll on 23 June, but the one that really matters, here on 6 April, on ratifying the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Everyone knows it’s a poll not just on the agreement but on the state of the European project. Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, insists it’s only about commerce. That'll be news to Kiev. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, desperate to join the EU, has hailed the treaty as facilitating accession: between 2003 and 2007, other Eastern European countries signed similar pacts before joining. With the treaty, as Poroshenko said last year, ‘Ukraine will be entitled to the status of candidate for accession.’ Rutte's claim is debatable, to say the least. The agreement’s commercial benefits to the EU are slight, given the size of Ukraine’s economy: one of the Netherlands’ twelve provinces, North Holland, has a bigger GDP than Ukraine. In a pre-referendum soaping foray to the Netherlands last November, though, Poroshenko agreed with Rutte – if not with himself – that it's all about trade: ‘For us, it's not about EU membership.’

Trade is never just trade. Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, was turfed out after abandoning negotiations over the Association Agreement. Behind the deal lurk fear and loathing of Russia. Thanks to Putin, the Donbass war rumbles on; Crime’s annexation has sharpened Ukraine’s vulnerability. Last month’s conviction in Donetsk of a Ukrainian pilot on bogus murder charges hasn't helped. The Kremlin harbours misgivings about having another forward base for Nato’s nukes at its door. On his Netherlands trip, Poroshenko used the MH17 disaster to leverage Dutch opinion; he was feted by Rutte, the European Commission vice president, Frans Timmermans, and the king. But that probably won't be enough to swing the vote.

The plebiscite is being held because of popular demand. Under the Netherlands' new Advisory Referendum Act, polls on primary legislation can be triggered by 300,000 requests. A coalition against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, GeenPeil ('no poll'), managed to amass 428,000 requests, so the anti-treaty lobby is over the first hurdle. For a valid result, 30 per cent of eligible voters have to turn out, and a majority has to reject the treaty; opinion polls suggest that voters oppose it by more than 60 to 40. So would that zap ratification? No. The poll is 'advisory' only. The political elite, including Rutte, favours ratifying; against it is an infrared/ultraviolet coalition of the Socialist Party, Geert Wilders's PVV and the Party for the Animals. Rutte hasn't pledged to respect a 'No' vote. Meanwhile, Burgercomité EU, part of the coalition behind the poll, admitted on Friday that it 'couldn't care less about Ukraine' and that the exercise is a stalking-horse for 'Nexit'.

Another exercise in demockery beckons. The EU has form on this. When national referendums were held on ratifying the 2004 European Constitutional Treaty, Jean-Claude Juncker, now the Commission president, confirmed it was heads-we-win, tails-you-lose. ‘If it’s a Yes, we will say “on we go,” and if it's a No, we will say, “we continue.”’ When French and Dutch voters decisively rejected the treaty, Juncker was as good as his word. The Commission dissolved the people and elected another: itself. It reintroduced the rejected treaty provisions in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, and governments ratified without referendum, except in Ireland (whose voters, having got it wrong first time, ratified in the resit). Not one to leave hyperbole at home when EU power’s at stake, Juncker warned in a recent interview with NRC Handelsblad that a 'No' from the Dutch to the Association Agreement with Ukraine would trigger a 'continental crisis'.

Empires like to expand under a unifying rubric: the EU is an empire in the Roman, Carolingian and Napoleonic tradition. Like the EU, those earlier exercises in integration were spurred in part by 'idealism'. Empires always think they benefit the natives, conferring such blessings as civilisation, prosperity, civic status. Natives' failure to value these blessings only confirms their backwardness. It makes a difference that cohesion isn't wrought by force of arms, but even then, policy often continues war by other means: the soft ordnance of trade sanctions against Russia, or the democracy-bypass conditions imposed on Greece over debt restructuring.

No doubt the EU won't take a Dutch 'No' for an answer. If they fail to get with the programme, decisions must be made behind the scenes, as with the EU's hush-hush negotiations over TTIP. Juncker again: ‘I am for secret, dark debates.’

Read more in the London Review of Books

James Meek reports from Ukraine · 20 March 2014

Susan Watkins: The European Impasse · 29 August 2013

Peter Pomerantsev: Iammmmyookkraaanian · 19 February 2015

Tony Wood on the situation in Ukraine · 5 June 2014


  • 4 April 2016 at 5:46pm
    saumacus says:
    "Thanks to Putin, the Donbass war rumbles on..."

    Of course. Putin forces ukrainian military to shell civilian population in Donbass. Who else?

    "Last month’s conviction in Donetsk of a Ukrainian pilot on bogus murder charges hasn’t helped."

    A ukrainian NOT A PILOT, convicted IN MOSCOW for being an artillery spotter for a nazi volunteer battalion, WHOSE ACTIONS LEAD TO THE DEATH of a Russian journalists.

    It is but a blog, not the LRB, but still...

    • 4 April 2016 at 8:49pm
      RobotBoy says: @ saumacus
      Well, there's the mistake the pilot-not-pilot made right there: he should have known that Putin and only Putin owns the franchise on killing Russian journalists.

    • 4 April 2016 at 10:04pm
      saumacus says: @ RobotBoy
      He who? And how many Russian journalists did Putin kill?

    • 4 April 2016 at 10:12pm
      RobotBoy says: @ saumacus
      Why don't you start with Wikipedia:,d.cGc
      And just keep going from there.

  • 4 April 2016 at 11:50pm
    tony lynch says:
    This should cheer you up Robotboy.

    Adam Shatz - "Israel's Putinisation' feb 2016

    ...Putin, a tough, ruthless leader whose resolve – and preference for military solutions – stands in sharp contrast to the caution and indecision of Barack Obama. Putin is also, in Israeli eyes, refreshingly indifferent to human rights.

  • 5 April 2016 at 7:38am
    cufflink says:
    Diplomacy can be war by other means and the EU anschliessen of Greater Ukraine rings the bell of alarm.
    But who instigates this within the EU Community? Who are these secret pseudo-democratic plotters who will not take no for an answer? Is there a totalitarian grip being tightened by a Dutch Auction of our eirenic interests? We must ensure therefore that the reserve price is set low enough to negate the bidding and thereby cool the pot (plot?).
    Putin may be non grata but Russia is not, and the association with Ukraine must be as with Norway, provisional and neighbourly only, not substantive.

    • 5 April 2016 at 10:31am
      martyn94 says: @ cufflink
      So many questions. To which I guess you could probably give us your answers. Preferably in English.

  • 5 April 2016 at 10:47am
    Alan Benfield says:
    "The plebiscite is being held because of popular demand."

    Well, not really: GeenPeil/Burgercomité EU consists of a bunch of right-wing anti-EU agitators who are trying to exploit an undercurrent of discontent, rather in the way that the infamous Mr. Wilders and his PVV do. It is noticeable, however, that while in the spaces in between elections Wilders rides high in the polls this is rarely translated at election time into the number of seats the pollsters predict. Rather like UKIP, really, except that here we have PR and thus the lack of seats cannot be blamed on the distorting effects of the electoral system. It is yet to be seen whether 428,000 signatures will translate into a majority no vote or, indeed, whether the required 30% will vote. And if they do, and 60% vote no, this will mean that 1.6 million (18%) of the 9 million registered voters will have voted against. Is that democracy?

    One of the disadvantages (or perhaps advantages) of the Dutch electoral system is that PR means there will always be coalitions, which means compromise. This gives everyone the opportunity to grumble about the government (a Dutch tradition), particularly the bits their party promised but can't implement, as they have to compromise with their coalition partners. Those outside government are allowed to moan about everything.

    It is probably as well to remark at this point that one of the points of representative democracy is that once in a while the citizens get to choose their representatives, who then are supposed to get on with it. If they are unhappy with the result they can vote the incumbents out later. Referendum culture undermines this model by introducing a false layer of apparent democracy which can easily be exploited by the unscrupulous. As Hans Goslinga put it in 'Trouw' yesterday:

    "The referendum now primarily acts as crowbar and disruptor and citizens should be aware that they are unwittingly serving a political end. In the context of the struggle for power its intention is therefore not at all to strengthen the people's influence. Instead, a group of small-minded people is attempting to mislead and misuse the public." (apologies for my clunky translation)


    See also Tom-Jan Meeus in Saturday's NRC Handelsblad:

    This is not to dispute the democratic deficit inherent in the current EU structure, but merely to point out that the present referendum has more to do with demagogy than democracy.

    Footnote: although PVV, SP and PVDD (Partij van de dieren/Party for the animals) are all agin, they are so for wildy varying reasons: PVV is anti-EU because they don't like foreigners, SP because they consider the EU a business cartel and PVDD because of factory farming practices in Ukraine (which will only be improved after a transition period).

  • 5 April 2016 at 10:50am
    martyn94 says:
    As has been said, this is "but a blog". I am sure there is an argument struggling to get out here. But the wild swings of tone - "demockery", "the EU has form", "expand under a rubric" (where else?) make it painfully hard to discern.

    As an aside, I have always found it hard to discern how Greece's issues have been a "democracy-bypass". I would probably vote for free beer on a bad day, but I don't think I would expect that vote to be respected even on my worst day.

    • 5 April 2016 at 1:59pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ martyn94
      "I have always found it hard to discern how Greece’s issues have been a “democracy-bypass”."

      Well, let me explain it to you:

      1. An (albeit democratically) elected government (a) enters the Eurozone under false pretences (with the help of Goldman Sachs, no less) because it doesn't fulfil the criteria and (b) subsequently uses its Eurozone status to borrow from banks, largely French and German;

      2. Said banks lend to said dodgy government profligately (a reckless borrower needs a reckless lender, after all); this is, at the time, no problem: the debts roll over from year to year, banks make profits, etc.;

      3. 2008 happens;

      4. Suddenly, (a) all bets are off and banks want their money back, sharpish, and (b) 'yields' (i.e. interest rates) go skywards;

      5. Dodgy government finds itself in the shit and cannot roll over, repay or service its debt and threatens default.

      Now, at this point, capitalism red in tooth and claw tells us that if default happens, the lender is stuffed, especially with sovereign debt. It might make it difficult for a country to borrow for a while, but they can repudiate their debt and the lender goes away empty-handed. This is called 'risk' and it is one of the ways lenders can be punished for issuing loans to unreliable clients. After all, in assuming that risk, the lender is paid handsomely: interest rates are high. The more the risk, the higher the rates. Speculators cannot have it both ways.

      In this case, however, rather than let their profligate lenders take the hit (and perhaps go bust, as capitalism insists), certain powerful governments decided to assume the dodgy sovereign debt by bailing out their dodgy banks. They then applied political pressure upon the 'debtor country' because of their position within the Eurozone. Suddenly, rather than being a question of a contract between a bunch of dodgy banks and a sovereign nation, it became a question of a feckless 'debtor nation' stealing from the pocketbooks of plucky (mostly German and French) taxpayers. In fact, what happened was, as so often, the socialisation of bank losses run up by the reckless.

      There was no need for Merkel, et al., to do this. Had Deutsche Bank, Société Générale, etc. fallen over it would have been their own fault and only their shareholders would have suffered. In doing so, however, the story was changed from a purely financial problem into a moral and political one, milked at length by the austerity-mongers of the rich North-West, led by their high priest, Herr Schäuble.

      I hope this helps...

    • 6 April 2016 at 2:42pm
      Sal Scilicet says: @ Alan Benfield
      Funny, how those who seem to know a lot so often lose sight of the questions, which they somehow seem to believe it is their sacred assignation to answer, on behalf of what one might suppose must look like a frightened congregation of children. Either that, or perhaps the self-appointed sage cannot discern any distinction between a rhetorical question, which more or less disguises a much heavier burden, and what sounds like a direct, interrogative enquiry. Meanwhile, an “innocent” question, such as what time it is, conveniently avoids more pressing matters. [Spike Milligan knew that the time is eight o’clock, because he had a kind man write it on a piece of paper for him.] Of course, how old you are is hardly a matter for serious debate. Until you reach an age when it matters a great deal that it really doesn’t matter at all. Or, until you are caught unawares by some silly thing, “out of the mouths of babes”, that belies their youth. And renders the wisdom of one’s elders a mockery. How much does it cost to raise a child? Seems straightforward enough. Until you find yourself in a position where you might allow yourself to believe you actually know the answer.

    • 6 April 2016 at 6:25pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Sal Scilicet
      And your point was?

Read more