Eurosceptics cry victory after Dutch 'No' vote on EU deal
Eurosceptic parties hailed Thursday "a vote of no-confidence" in Brussels after Dutch voters rejected an EU pact with Ukraine in a fresh blow to European unity only weeks before Britain's in-out referendum.
Despite the low turnout in Wednesday's referendum, European leaders were left nursing a new headache after preliminary results showed 61 percent of those who voted opposed the Brussels-Kiev deal.
"The 'No' camp clearly won," admitted Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, acknowledging an embarrassing slap in the face at a time when his country holds the rotating EU presidency.
Dutch far-right MP Geert Wilders said the results of the referendum, triggered by grassroots eurosceptics, were "a vote of no confidence by the people against the elite from Brussels and The Hague".
But it remained uncertain how much of a boost it would give to campaigners pushing for a "Brexit" in Britain's June 23 referendum on whether to leave the European Union.
Nor was it clear how much it would affect the EU's association agreement with Kiev which has already been ratified by the 27 other EU members and been partially implemented.
Ukraine itself vowed the results would not be an obstacle to its push for closer ties with the 28-member EU away from the orbit of former Soviet master Russia.
But European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, who spoke at length late Wednesday with Rutte about the results, was said to be saddened by the outcome.
The bloc is already battling deep divisions over its handling of the continent's biggest migration crisis since World War II and financial woes in several member countries including Greece.
- 'No Brexit effect' -
British Prime Minister David Cameron nevertheless voiced hope the vote would not boost the campaign for a Brexit.
"It is important that the European institutions and the Dutch government listen carefully to what people are saying, to try and understand that and to try and work with that," Cameron said.
"I don't think it has any effect on us because we have a bigger question."
Analyst Rens Vliegenthart, communications professor at the University of Amsterdam, agreed.
"Eurosceptics will see this as a boost, but I can hardly see British voters in a Brexit campaign being influenced by this vote," he told AFP.
However, Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), hailed it as a "tremendous victory for democracy".
"Time and again, voters are choosing to reject Brussels whenever they are consulted about the EU," added Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Vote Leave, another pro-Brexit group.
And Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, welcomed in a Tweet "yesterday's triumph by patriotic forces".
- Mulling next steps -
Rutte, whose government has to consider the results after turnout just sneaked past the 30 percent needed to make the vote valid, said he would now consult with his cabinet and Brussels.
"We are now going to look at the process step-by-step," Rutte said, adding a final decision on what to do "may still take weeks."
Rutte "is in a tricky situation," said political analyst Claes de Vreese.
"He will now quickly have to figure out what the biggest gripes are of those who voted no and see if he can do something about it", De Vreese told AFP.
But he and other analysts warned that given the low turnout, the "No" vote was not representative of all 12.5 million eligible voters.
EU President Donald Tusk said he was waiting for Rutte's evaluation of the results.
Analysts said Rutte had several options from seeking to perhaps add a line to the pact symbolically recognising the Dutch vote, to the most radical solution of renegotiating parts or all of the deal.
Commerzbank analyst Marco Wagner warned the results could "have much broader consequences" especially with Dutch elections looming in 2017.
"Although it is unlikely that the referendum marked the start of an exit from the EU, it should result in a change of the government's policy," he said.
But Russian leaders gloated at the "No" vote.
"Results of the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement indicate Europeans' opinion of the Ukrainian political system," Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted.
President Petro Porosheko of Ukraine, where pro-EU protesters ousted his pro-Kremlin predecessor in 2014 over his refusal to sign the association accord, maintained Kiev would forge ahead with closer ties to Europe.
"Ukraine and freedom cannot be stopped," he said.
© 2016 AFP