Dutch voters to demonstrate their position on EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in much anticipated non-binding referendum
Dutch voters go to the polls on Wednesday to decide whether to support a key EU deal with Ukraine in a referendum triggered by grassroots eurosceptic groups and seen as a yardstick on ties with Brussels.
Polling stations across the country opened at 0530 GMT for the non-binding popular vote on whether the Dutch approve closer ties with Kiev, an outcome sure to be closely watched by both the West and Moscow.
Opinion polls on the eve of the vote on the EU's so-called Association Agreement with Ukraine - which mainly bolsters trade but also seeks reform on the Ukrainian economy in order to root out corruption, unsustainable debts and inflation - showed the "No" vote having the slight edge.
The agreement which was signed shortly after Ukraine's pro-EU president Petro Poroshenko assumed office in June 2014, was described by Poroshenko as Ukraine's "first but most decisive step" towards the EU membership.
However, the implementation of the plan was delayed until early 2016 due to Russian concerns that the deal may result in cheap goods from Ukraine affecting the Russian market.
"Opinions are greatly divided over the Ukraine agreement and at the same time, there's a large group that doesn't have an opinion," an Ipsos opinion poll said on Tuesday.
While some 37 percent polled over recent days said they would vote against the deal, around 33 percent were in favour and the rest remained undecided.
The referendum was called after a Dutch satirical website managed to collect enough signatures in October to open the way for a national referendum concerning the pact. The Dutch Electoral Council said that the website had collected 420,000 signatures, more than the 300,000 needed for a referendum to take place.
Organisers put forward the referendum following new Dutch legislation that allows citizens to voice opinions on legislative decisions provided they garner enough signatures for their cause.
The Netherlands is now the only country in the 28-nation EU still to ratify the accord and the deal has been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.
Kiev watches anxiously
The vote is also being anxiously watched in Ukraine, which has moved to knit closer ties with the West since the February 2014 ouster of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
In past weeks, Kiev has sent top ministers and officials to the Netherlands to help whip up support for a "yes" vote.
Ukraine's president voiced confidence that the Dutch people would vote in favour of the pact, and warned about his country becoming victim of what he called "an internal Dutch discussion about the future of the European Union."
The referendum's eurosceptic Dutch organisers have admitted the vote is essentially not about Ukraine, but a handy hook to push a broader anti-EU agenda and "give citizens more say in Brussels."
Both the Liberal Rutte and his junior Labour coalition partner have called for a vote in the agreement's favour.
But the Dutch government has not entered into any active campaigning and has repeatedly said it will await the outcome before deciding what steps to take.
The results of the vote is expected to be influenced by the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014 over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. The strike took the lives of 298 people, including 193 Dutch citizens.
Ukraine has been at loggerheads with Russia since Moscow annexed Crimea and allegedly gave military as well as political support to the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
This in turn has drawn Kiev closer to the European Union, as the EU continues to blame Russia for its alleged presence in eastern Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly denied accusations of sending forces to help pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine. However, it has admitted that there are Russian nationals fighting as volunteers in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.