On the surface, the recent Dutch referendum vote against the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine appears to be a victory for Russia. But is it really?

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders prepares to cast his vote in a non-binding referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. Photo: AP

Long before a majority of the Dutch electorate voted against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in a special referendum on Apr. 6, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker warned about the possible implications of voting against the referendum.

If the Dutch vote against the Kiev-Brussels free trade deal, he suggested, it “would open the door to a big continental crisis," and "Russia would pluck the fruits of an easy victory.”

Also read: "Russia is still searching for a new normal in its relationship with Europe"

So does the recent Dutch vote against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement really mean the future of the European Union is in question?    

Maybe not, but the very fact that 61 percent of the Dutch electorate voted against the Ukraine-EU agreement on Apr. 6 indicates there is significant disagreement on the future of the European Union amongst ordinary Europeans. It is clear that those who voted on the referendum in the Netherlands are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the official policy of the EU.

“It looks like the Dutch people said NO to the European elite and NO to the treaty with the Ukraine. The beginning of the end of the EU,said far right politician Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), in response to the results of the referendum.

In addition, the leader of the Dutch Socialist Party, Emile Roemer, who campaigned against the neoliberal nature of the Ukraine-EU free trade deal, questioned Kiev’s economic record and domestic policy. He proclaimed the referendum result to be “a victory for Ukraine, for Netherlands and for Europe.”

Even though the Dutch referendum is non-binding in its nature, the fact that more than 30 percent voted on the referendum makes the verdict one that politicians must take into account. Prime Minster of the Netherlands Mark Rutte made it clear that because of legal obstacles his country is hardly likely to be able to sign the Ukraine-EU deal as it currently stands.

But again, does this really mean that the referendum is sparking the type of continental crisis and Kremlin victory that Juncker warned about? After all, the EU has proved to be very flexible and sustainable in handling different political crises until recently.

Kiev and Brussels are highly likely to make attempts to enforce the deal on free trade signed in 2014. However, this might be challenging to do, even though EU-Ukraine annual trade turnover has been increasing and such countries as Germany and Poland are advocating for the enforcement of the agreement.   

Despite the obvious need to reassess the agreement, there is very little chance that Russia will be involved in the negotiating process on the future of EU-Ukraine economic relations. Theoretically, it might be possible; however, in practice it is not, because Kiev is not ready to include Moscow in any talks about the future of its European integration.

At the same time, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s statements about Kiev’s perseverance in its aspirations for EU membership have now been called into question.

Is the Kremlin really winning?

European liberals as well as the Ukrainian authorities might see the results of the Dutch referendum as the victory of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy to divide Europe. Moreover, some conspiracy theorists might see the Kremlin’s hand behind the outcome of the voting.

Also read: "Russia's new 'Trojan horse' strategy for breaking European unity"

However, such suspicions are not based in reality. Indeed, if one thinks that Russia’s intelligence services and propaganda can rig 400,000 signatures in support of the referendum or encourage ordinary Dutch people to vote against the Association Agreement, one overestimates the Kremlin’s potential to manipulate votes in Europe.

Skeptics could retort and say that the victory of the Eurosceptics is most beneficial to the Kremlin. In fact, they could present Putin as the major winner for a reason.  After all, the Ukraine crisis started in 2013, when then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was about to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union and the Russian leadership was reported to have used all its political and economic means to divert Kiev from this stance.

But, eventually, such a tug of war led to a severe crisis in Russia-Ukraine relations, with long-term economic and political implications. Today, the Ukraine's parliament raises the question about the rupture of diplomatic relations. Ukraine-Russia trade is facing serious problems. Moreover, Russian-Ukrainian relations are almost irreparably damaged. Moscow is hardly likely to be interested in aggravating the crisis and conducting a behind-the-scenes policy in Europe to discredit Ukraine. 

Russia doesn’t need secrecy and sophisticated manipulation to place into question Kiev’s ability to resolve the country’s current problems and fulfill its international commitments. Ukraine’s economic record, the involvement of its president in the Panama Papers scandal and its inability to fulfill the Minsk Agreements are the best arguments in the hands of Putin and those who oppose the EU rapprochement with Ukraine to turn down the Kiev-Brussels free trade deal. As a result, this latest referendum is the clearest sign yet of such a shift in the EU’s assessment of Ukraine, at least among ordinary citizens. 

So, in many ways, Moscow seems to be the winner. However, it remains to be seen if it can reap any political dividends. The result of the Dutch referendum is a peculiar case, which doesn’t reflect the general trend and cannot be a reliable indicator that the European Union is against the deal with Ukraine.

Politically, the Kremlin has to deal with the EU’s institutions in general, not on a country-by-country basis, not matter how much it prefers to work with European countries on a bilateral level.

A recent example of such policy is the visit of Austrian President Heinz Fisher to Moscow. He reiterated that he was seeking to boost Russia-EU relations and denounced the sanctions policy toward Russia, which he says hampers both sides. However, his aspirations to improve relations with Russia don’t resolve the problem and don’t bring the Kremlin any real political dividends, because it still has to deal with the European Union.   

To quote Fisher, if Austria is a loyal member of the EU, it should stick to Europe’s general policy toward Russia, which means Russia-EU relations won’t improve until the European Union itself decides to change its approach to Russia drastically. This is hardly likely to happen in the near future. So, the Dutch referendum is not a game-changer at all, at least for Moscow-Brussels relations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.