Dutch voters head to polls on key EU-Ukraine deal
Dutch voters go to the polls Wednesday to decide whether to support a key EU deal with Ukraine in a referendum triggered by grassroots eurosceptic groups and seen as a yardstick on ties with Brussels.
Polling stations across the country open at 0530 GMT for the non-binding popular vote on whether the Dutch approve closer ties with Kiev, an outcome sure to be closely watched by both the West and Moscow.
Opinion polls on the eve of the vote on the EU's so-called Association Agreement with Ukraine, which mainly bolsters trade, showed the "No" vote having the slight edge.
"Opinions are greatly divided over the Ukraine agreement and at the same time, there's a large group that doesn't have an opinion," an Ipsos opinion poll said Tuesday.
While some 37 percent polled over recent days said they would vote against the deal, around 33 percent were in favour and the rest remained undecided.
The vote is also being anxiously watched in Ukraine, which has moved to knit closer ties with the West since the 2014 ouster of a Moscow-backed president.
In past weeks, Kiev has sent top ministers and officials to the Netherlands to help whip up support for a "yes" vote.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko voiced confidence the Dutch people would vote in favour of the pact, and warned about his country becoming victim of what he called "an internal Dutch discussion about the future of the European Union".
The referendum's eurosceptic Dutch organisers have admitted the vote is essentially not about Ukraine, but a handy hook to push a broader anti-EU agenda and "give citizens more say in Brussels".
It was triggered after the organisers used new Dutch legislation that allows citizens to voice opinions on legislative decisions provided they garner enough signatures for their cause.
- Kiev 'collateral damage' -
The Netherlands is now the only country in the 28-nation EU still to ratify the accord and the deal has been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.
For Dutch voters "it's not really about the Ukraine in the end. It was more just the first issue that came along after the (referendum) law was introduced," said Aaron Matta, senior researcher at The Hague Institute for Global Justice think-tank.
"I see the agreement with Ukraine a bit more like collateral damage" in the bigger fight with Brussels, Matta told AFP.
He warned of wider repercussions should the "No" vote win, both for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government -- which currently holds the rotating EU presidency -- as well as for Kiev.
"Even though the result is non-binding, some political solution will have to be put in place by the Dutch government. They will have to save face... having been placed in an awkward situation."
"The Netherlands will perhaps have to find some way of opting out of the agreement," he said.
Both the Liberal Rutte and his junior Labour coalition partner have called for a vote in the agreement's favour.
But the Dutch government has not entered into any active campaigning and has repeatedly said it will await the outcome before deciding what steps to take.
Russia, which backs separatist rebels in Ukraine's east, resents Kiev's tilt towards the West and would relish a vote to prevent it from developing ties with Brussels.
Last week the United States also weighed into the debate, urging Dutch voters to back Ukraine.
"We believe that an association agreement is in the best interests of Ukraine, the Netherlands and Europe as a whole," State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said.
Observers added a "No" win will be seen as a bellwether for Britain's own June referendum on whether to leave the EU, dubbed as a possible "Brexit."
Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, was in Amsterdam on Monday to voice his support for a "No" vote.
"The result of a 'No' vote in this referendum will send a big message to the British electorate that we are not alone in thinking something has fundamentally gone wrong in the direction of the European Union," he said to applause.
© 2016 AFP