Harry van Bommel: A yes-vote in the Ukraine referendum will cost us money

9 March 2016

Harry van Bommel: A yes-vote in the Ukraine referendum will cost us money

Frans Douw recently wrote an opinion piece in this paper dissenting from the party’s line and expressing support for the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine. His support was based on the treaty’s symbolic value. I will be voting against the treaty with complete conviction. The facts about Ukraine and the treaty in my view speak for themselves.

The first of these facts concerns the division amongst the Ukrainian people over the question of which part of the world their country should look towards: Europe or Russia? This division has led to an armed conflict with almost 10,000 deaths and more than two million refugees. Almost a million of these have sought refuge in Russia. 17% of the population is ethnically Russia, while 30% speak Russian as their mother tongue. Should this treaty go through and Ukraine’s orientation become exclusively directed towards the EU, these people will feel themselves to be out in the cold. The conflict will then harden and eventually Ukraine will probably tear itself apart. It would be irresponsible to encourage that process by going ahead with this agreement. Ukraine would do better, for the sake of its own security and that of the region, to stick to a neutral buffer position.

Another fact, also mentioned by Douw, is the neoliberal character of the treaty. Multinationals will find in Ukraine 45 million new consumers, all wanting to buy a flat screen and a smartphone. These won’t be made by Ukrainian firms, because the majority of these companies will be restructured, as the Association Agreement includes a ban on state aids to Ukraine’s outmoded industry. Many companies will soon have to close down. Risk investors will buy up any of the remaining firms which are viable. So it isn’t surprising that American billionaire George Soros is supporting the yes campaign with huge amounts of money. He can hardly wait to get his hands on corporations such as Naftagaz, the for the moment still state-owned national oil and gas company. Employees there and taxpayers here will foot the bill for this project. In order to make Ukraine fit for free trade with the European Union, European funds will be available. That’s going to cost a great deal of money, because Ukraine is hopelessly behind the EU, as was clear to me when I visited the country, which I have done more than once, including as an election observer for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.

A third point is that it has to be doubted whether the financial support for Ukraine will end up in the right pockets. I fear that it won’t. Already now Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe and corruption can’t be fought with good intentions in an Association Agreement. For that, practicalities are called for, such as training of the judicial authorities, improvements in tax collection, and increases in police salaries. None of these requires an Association Agreement. The Netherlands works with many countries to pursue these goals. And that could also happen in Ukraine. The chances are great that the money that is going to be made available will disappear into the pockets of corrupt oligarchs who have the country’s economy in their grip, or that as happened in Poland projects will be built which nobody wants or needs. It’s well-known that there are ‘ghost airports’ in Poland where no planes ever land. These were built with money from the European taxpayer.

Douw argues that a ‘yes’ vote will be taken as psychological support for the ‘good guys’ against the ‘bad guys’. In my view the world is not so black and white. There are many extreme right and fascist organisations in Ukraine who want this treaty but who can hardly be counted amongst the ‘good guys’. Amongst the opponents can be found trade unionists and environmentalists who are being intimidated and bullied by big Ukrainian corporations. In the Netherlands I have spoken with Ukrainians who see this Association Agreement as a reward for their country’s oligarchy but who as a result of threats hardly day say so. It would be extremely wrong to list these people among the ‘bad guys’.

The concrete and real things which might be expected from this treaty are serious, and bad for Ukraine, for Europe, but also for the Netherlands. Relations between Russia and Europe have become confrontational. Corrupt politicians and oligarchs will soon be making even more from cooperation with Europe. Taxpayers will be forking out for the Ukrainian appeal for European subsidies. I too want to offer a helping hand to the Ukrainians, out of international solidarity, but not with this treaty. We conduct trade with very many countries, without having an Association Agreement with them, and we also aid many countries on all sorts of terrains without such an accord. The referendum offers us a great chance to reconsider this treaty with Ukraine and I fervently hope that a ‘no’ on 6th April will lead to an alternative that is better for all of the parties involved.

This article first appeared on 9th March, in the original Dutch, in the national daily Nederlands Dagblad. It is a response to a piece by Frans Douw, a prison director and himself a member of the SP, which was published on 26th February. Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP.

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