Tiny Kox: Premier Rutte pulls dead rabbit from his hat to force through Ukraine treaty

14 December 2016

Tiny Kox: Premier Rutte pulls dead rabbit from his hat to force through Ukraine treaty

After months of foot-dragging Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte must give a clear answer to a simple question. Is the government going to ratify the European Union Association Agreement with Ukraine or not?

Parliament has already said ‘yes’, but then the majority of voters in a consultative referendum on the treaty on April 6th said ‘no’. The law that governs such a referendum obliges the government, as rapidly as possible after a vote of this kind, to present a bill to Parliament either withdrawing the Netherlands’ endorsement of the measure or putting it into force. Yet the Prime Minister has knowingly failed to apply this law. The reason is clear. Despite the voters’ verdict, he wants to sign the treaty.

Yet he knows that a large part of Parliament is extremely critical and that the majority of the population wants the government to take the result of the referendum seriously. He knows also that most European heads of government don’t find any pleasure in the prospect of a Dutch ‘no’, which as a result of the fact that a treaty with a foreign power requires unanimity, would lead to a situation in which the Association Agreement could not come into force. And he knows that Ukraine will in any case hold on to the treaty.

Premier Rutte has come up with his final list of proposals. He put before the European Council in Brussels what was in his own words a ‘legally binding declaration’ for them to sign. This confirmed that the treaty would not be a step towards EU membership for Ukraine, would not result in additional resources being given to the country, creates no military duties in relation to that country, does not offer Ukrainian workers free access to the EU, and that the question of corruption will be central to the Association Agreement. With this, in the view of the Prime Minister, justice will be done to the Dutch ‘no’ vote and ratification can proceed. During the debate on the government’s programme in the Senate, I informed the Premier of the lifeless condition of the rabbit that he had pulled out of his hat with his ‘legally binding declaration’.

That the no-voters would succeed in being listened to by a government that says ‘yes’ to the treaty which they rejected is a preposterous idea after all. Certainly now that the National Referendum Enquiry has confirmed that had the turnout been a lot higher the result would likely have been the same. The enquiry also confirmed that the principal concerns of the no-voters were the endemic corruption in Ukraine and the fear that as a result of this treaty Ukrainian membership of the EU would come a step closer.

This week the European Court of Auditors, an official EU watchdog, reported that Ukraine was the most corrupt country in the whole of Europe, confirming that the number one objection of those who voted ‘no’ was justified. From a public register of property which came into force in Ukraine on November 1st, it emerged in shocking fashion how shamelessly the elite have lined their pockets while the people languish in poverty and the country is virtually bankrupt. The President himself owns 102 businesses, despite a law forbidding him to own any at all. And in common with his fellow ministers, senior civil servants and Members of Parliament, he has capital principally in foreign currencies stashed at his home or in the bank, thereby expressing in a harrowing fashion his own lack of belief in the viability of the Ukrainian state. It is not to be wondered at that, according to Ukraine’s own people, the country is wholly on the wrong path.

In a recent investigation from anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, 72% of respondents answered ‘no’ when asked whether the country was less corrupt than it had been four years ago. According to more than 60% of them the most corrupt groups are the leaders of their government, the Members of Parliament, the tax authorities, and the judges, along with the President and prime minister. Almost 40% said that in the last year they had had to grease palms on one or more than one occasion, for example in education, health care and to the traffic police. A report from the Council of Europe shortly to be made public says equally that corruption remains Ukraine’s biggest problem.

As for the second major concern of those who voted ‘no’, that the treaty would bring Ukraine’s EU membership closer, nothing whatsoever has of course been done to confirm in a way which is ‘legally binding’, that in fact this treaty says not a thing about this matter. That has been clear all along. But that Ukraine would become a member state were it up to President Poroshenko is obvious. The President maintains that his country will be ready to join within around five years, and that in the terms of the EU treaty it will be fully within its rights to apply. Of course, he will then point to the fact that the EU had after all just concluded the most far-reaching Association Agreement ever with his country, and argue that it was not for nothing that it had done so. The times that I have had the opportunity to speak with him he has repeatedly brought this to my attention.

In short, Rutte’s rabbit from the hat in the form of his ‘legally binding declaration’ treats all of those who voted no with contempt and changes nothing in the treaty which they rejected. The Dutch Parliament has been dished up a declaration which changes not a letter of the Association Agreement’s text. And whether the other EU member states will in any case be prepared to sign up to such a declaration is uncertain. In particular eastern European countries have little enthusiasm for the treaty. Lastly, a declaration of this kind is worthless, even if it is signed by every EU member state. After all, the most important partner in this accord, Ukraine, will according to Rutte not be asked to sign the ‘binding declaration’. Half of the country which this is all about cannot be bound by it. Thus, the Association Agreement remains for Ukraine what it was, a far-reaching political association along with economic integration into the European Union – as literally formulated in the treaty’s text – as a possible step towards EU membership.

So we shouldn’t go ahead with it.

Tiny Kox is leader of the SP group in the Senate. This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on the website joop.nl on December 12th.

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