Voting slow in Dutch EU yardstick poll

6th April 2016, Comments 0 comments

Dutch voters went to the polls Wednesday on whether to back a key EU pact with Ukraine in a referendum triggered by grassroots eurosceptic groups and seen as a yardstick on ties with Brussels.

The vote -- which organisers openly admit is essentially not about Ukraine, but about broader anti-EU sentiment -- is being closely watched ahead of the British "Brexit" referendum in June.

For the ballot to be valid there has to be at least a 30 percent turnout of the 12.5 million people eligible to vote.

The civic-minded Dutch usually flock to the polls, with past turnouts hitting around 75 percent, but with a few hours left before polling stations closed, interest appeared to be lacklustre.

Dutch media said only about 10 to 15 percent of voters had cast their ballots in the major cities.

A Dutch "No" to the two-year-old treaty with Kiev could pose a headache for the European Union (EU) and is being closely watched by Moscow as well.

- 'Help stability' -

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who cast his ballot at a Hague primary school, urged citizens to vote in favour.

"We have to help Ukraine build up a judicial state and its democracy. To support its minorities like Jews and its gay community. Therefore I call on the entire Netherlands: go vote and vote in favour," Rutte said.

"Europe needs more stability at its edges."

Opinion polls on the eve of the vote over the EU's so-called Association Agreement with Ukraine gave the "No" vote a slight edge, but many voters were undecided, saying they remained puzzled about what it was all about.

"I think it's good to have a referendum, to be able to say what we think of Brussels. It's important," one voter, who identified himself only as Bert, 49, told AFP.

It remains unclear what the results could mean for the Netherlands -- which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

The vote is non-binding and the government has been non-committal, saying only it would study the results after polls close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT).

The "No" camp has highlighted concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and continuing separatist unrest in the east, among reasons to refuse closer ties with Kiev.

According to one Ipsos poll, some 37 percent said they would vote against. Around 33 percent were in favour and the rest were undecided.

Ukraine, where a Moscow-backed president who rejected the cooperation deal was ousted in 2014, has actively campaigned for a "yes" vote.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced confidence in Dutch support, but his inclusion in the so-called Panama Papers tax evasion scandal has turned off some Dutch voters.

"I voted against because I don't think the accord is a good thing for the Netherlands," said Nik Tam, 65, adding there were already "too many" countries in the EU.

Anti-immigrant far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders tweeted to supporters: "Everyone vote today. And vote against!"

But as cold, driving rain settled in over much of the country, polling stations reported being unusually quiet.

- What next? -

Organisers admit that the vote is more about attitudes to the EU than Ukraine.

They harnessed new laws allowing referendums on legislative decisions by garnering more than 300,000 signatures.

The Netherlands is now the only member in the 28-nation EU still to ratify the accord -- which has a major trade component -- and the deal has been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.

Aaron Matta, senior researcher at The Hague Institute for Global Justice think-tank, warned of wider repercussions of a "No" vote.

"The Netherlands will perhaps have to find some way of opting out of specific provisions in the agreement," he told AFP.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has warned a "no" vote "could open the doors to a continental crisis".

Russia however, which backs Ukraine's separatist rebels, resents Kiev's tilt towards the West and would relish a vote against the deal.

A "No" win could also lend a boost to the "Brexit" campaign.

"If the Dutch people vote no today, it will be a incentive for the British voters to say no," Wilders said.

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© 2016 AFP

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