What is really at stake for Ukraine after the Dutch referendum?

Preliminary results from yesterday’s referendum in the Netherlands on the final ratification of an EU-Ukraine association agreement showed that nearly two thirds of participants said “no” to the deal. Many experts and observers were quick to express their doubts over the practical consequences of the plebiscite, due to its non-binding nature and the EU Council’s decision making rules with respect to foreign policy treaties.

As these statements are most probably true, the main consequence of the 6 April referendum should be seen as a “slap in the face”, which Ukraine has now received from that same Europe on whose support so many Ukrainians have laid  their hopes. The “dream” of Europe and the “normality” its soft power had promised were instrumental behind the Euromaidan events in late 2013. The toppling of the Yanukovych regime was not supposed to be a mere change of political leadership, but a trashing of an entire political paradigm, of which the majority of Ukrainians have had enough.

Sadly, few good words can be said about the state of Ukrainian politics today, more than two years after those historical events. The new political leaders in Kiev have already managed to tarnish their image and the ruling coalition has been plagued by infighting despite being faced with vast external threats from neighboring Russia.

I suppose that the regular Dutch voter in yesterday’s referendum has very little idea of what it means and how it feels to have one’s hopes for change stolen and betrayed over and over in the course of more than 25 years. Several generations have changed since the end of World War II on the European continent and the post-war welfare state has allowed many westerners to forget what hardship means, which I guess is a good thing. However, many probably have serious difficulties to associate with it or even imagine how daily life looks in most post-Soviet states. Of course, no one should get the blame here ­­– history and geography are not something one can choose at birth.

The point is that left alone to their own devices, Ukrainian elites will probably resort to doing what they know best – form oligarchic clans, seek rents, syphon public money, sabotage institutional building, and completely disregard the interest of their own nation and society. The idea of the EU in the minds of average Ukrainians, or what’s left of it, is supposed to embody the complete opposite of these practices.

The association agreement includes in its major part the establishment of a free trade area between Ukraine and the EU. But it is an indication of an association process though without any membership prospect at this stage. However, this process can give direction to the efforts of Ukraine and its citizens, become an idea that can unite and motivate towards change. Growing ties between Kiev and Brussels should gradually create a sort of corrective to the standard practices of Ukrainian elites. This strategy has proven its effectiveness before and after the EU’s eastern expansions. Some members states like Romania and Bulgaria are still far from the EU governance ideals, but they would have been in a state far uglier was it not for Brussels’s influence. With Ukraine, lacking a membership promise, the power of conditionality the EU can yield will be less effective, but the alternatives from the east are probably bleaker.

Euroscepticism is slowly creeping among societies in most EU member states, both old and new. It is no secret that many people in the new eastern members are shaken by nostalgia for the old socialist system, because of unrealistic rosy assessments of life at that time. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is also actively exploiting these sentiments and enforcing the myths about the failure of the liberal West, spiced up by talk on all sorts of plots, conspiracies, and panslavism. The referendum from yesterday plays directly into the hands of those creating and enjoying these narratives. Along these lines, Ukrainians are to become disillusioned with a West which does not like to see them as equals and is not ready to accept them. A natural choice for Ukraine then would be to come back to the only place it is historically supposed to belong to – Russia’s orbit, the only domain for the “Orthodox and Slavic” – as the story goes.

Without clear direction towards EU association, Ukrainian society risks losing the sense of what to fight for. This scenario will surely make it easier for Russian hardliners to bully Kiev into submission once again. The grey zone status for Ukraine suits Moscow’s interest, but is a risk for the EU. Geopolitics is at first glance not leading EU states’ foreign policy agendas, but it is strongly active among Vladimir Putin’s close circle. Of course, it would be unwise to expect that geopolitical considerations could drive average voters in a popular plebiscite.

The Dutch are perhaps among those peoples in the world most sensitive and adverse to corruption as well as institutional and political impudence. May be that is why many of them yesterday gave way to their suspicions towards Ukraine and its leaders. However, the Dutch also hold freedom and free will as values of utmost importance. The “no” vote at the referendum may bee showing Dutch people’s disbelief in the EU and their protest against the way its run, but it should not take away Ukraine’s direction towards “normality” and modern statehood. The message to the Dutch government should be that foreign policy is not to be made by popular vote, as strategic planning has always been the main task of ruling elites.

I think a major part of the EU’s identity crisis of the last decade could be blamed on the lack of strong and inspiring ideas to rally Europeans. After each terror attack, statements and vows are made in defense of Europe’s values, but a real test for those values is the fate of Ukraine. We should not make it look like those living on the periphery of “Europe” feel stronger about what that same Europe stands for than the EU’s citizens themselves.