The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement - Dutch people vote overwhelmingly against

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As with the 2005 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, their vote will be effectively ignored

The victory of last week’s ‘No’ vote in the Netherlands, which if the European Union was indeed the democratic federation of states which it claims to be would have killed the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement stone dead, is being played down or completely ignored in the Mainstream media. The Guardian, an example of a newspaper which tries to play the increasingly untenable game of defending capitalism and the EU whilst appearing civilised, is a prime example. In its only interpretative article on the referendum results, the paper referred to the No campaigners as a ‘motley crew of attention-seekers’ and made much of the fact that both the furthest right and furthest left parties in the Dutch Parliament were against the treaty. They failed to analyse the arguments which attracted voters to these two camps: the EU’s arrogant, blinkered behaviour has of course encouraged xenophobia in its member states, but at the same time the fact that it is a ‘bosses’ club’ (that’s the kind of club you hit people over the head with, by the way) is increasingly obvious. The Socialist Party (SP), a radical, EU-critical, anti-capitalist and strategically clever party which picked up 10% of the vote in the last general election and is the country’s joint-largest opposition grouping with 15 MPs, is on record as hoping that a no vote would ‘encourage renewed negotiations between Ukraine, the European Union and Russia. Then the mistakes that have been made can perhaps be righted and better agreements made.’ This, in my view, repeats the error made by Syriza in believing that when one negotiates with the EU’s leaders one is dealing with honest politicians whose opinions may differ from one’s own, but who are no less committed to democracy. This is to entirely misunderstand the nature of the beast, which is now fighting desperately for its survival.

The ‘yes’ side and its disgruntled supporters in the media like to pretend that the vote was a mere ignorant protest against the EU, in which Ukraine was simply a pawn in the game. This enables them to ignore the real nature of the Association Agreement, as well as its geopolitical implications.

The fact is that it is quite impossible for Ukraine to survive as an economically independent entity. This may be true of every nation in this phase of history, but in Ukraine’s case this economic weakness creates a danger of absolute political dependence. Sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, the latter power has sought both to give the impression that this means it has to choose, and to make this impression a reality.

To be fair to the Guardian, they did publish the best, most well-informed piece on the referendum prior to its being held. It was written by Nicolai Petro, an expert on Russia and on relations among former Soviet states who teaches at a university in the US. He argued that the main problem facing Ukraine was ‘not corruption, a serious issue about which little can be done in the short term, but the ideologically driven choice to sever all ties with Russia, the country that has historically been its major trading partner and chief investor.’

Since relations with Russia were plunged into crisis, the economy has collapsed, living standards have fallen by half, and a plummeting currency has brought rampant inflation. There is absolutely no reason, of course, why Ukraine should not both trade and maintain peaceful relations with all of its neighbours. Only the European Union, and an increasingly aggressive NATO, are standing in the way of that.

The Yes side in the Netherlands and their friends in Brussels and elsewhere argued throughout that this was a simple trade agreement. Yet in Ukraine itself, government leaders, including President Poroshenko, have indicated that they see it as a direct path to EU membership, with the President stating recently to an audience in Poland that he hoped to run for membership of the European Parliament in 2020. Equally disturbingly, especially for the leaders and people of Russia, the treaty openly goes well beyond trade, speaking of a “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters”. It also imposes neoliberal conditions on the weaker party, stating that Ukraine will “gradually approximate its policies to the policies of the EU, in accordance with the guiding principles of macroeconomic stability, sound public finances and a sustainable balance of payments.” Ukrainians should check with Greece for what that means in practice. Although such conditions are now commonplace in draft trade treaties, they cannot be found in those Association Agreements whose end goal is clearly not EU membership, such as those with Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.

Ukraine is in the middle of a major civil conflict which this Association Agreement can only exacerbate, thus representing another step on the road to an East-West partition. Almost 10,000 people have lost their lives since fighting began, while close to a million have been forced from their homes, most of them over the border into Russia.

Much is made of the alleged role which the agreement would have in combating corruption. No-one disputes that corruption is a huge problem. How this treaty is supposed to help combat this, however, is a mystery. The EU’s European Court of Auditors has just, for the twentieth year in suppression, refused to approve the accounts from which its funds flow into its own poorer regions and those beyond its borders. There is considerable evidence that huge slices of this financial pie end up on the plates of criminals. As the Dutch SP has proposed, before aid of this kind can be given to bodies in Ukraine what the country needs is aid in training independent judges and an effective financial law enforcement force. Good luck with that.

As things stand, however, the only real beneficiaries of the Association Agreement (I should of course be able to say ‘would have been’, but as I have already noted, we are not dealing here with people with any respect for democracy) will be local oligarchs and foreign investors looking to profit from new markets. It’s significant that George Soros, for example, wasted some of his millions on trying to persuade the Dutch people to vote ‘yes’.

It is not even as if the EU is prepared to step in and replace the Russian markets lost to Ukraine, which are falling precipitously. Most Ukrainian food companies are not licensed to export to the EU, and almost half of those which are produce honey. I’m a big fan of honey, and am always looking to try new varieties. I’ve yet to come across anything from Ukraine, however. This isn’t surprising, as the quotas granted to these honey producers are so small they are used up in the first few weeks of the year.

80% of state-owned farm companies are, by the government’s own admission, bankrupt. As the same proportion of agricultural machinery is imported, and Ukraine’s major Russian export markets are effectively frozen out, there will be no money to pay for repair or replacement when this is needed. In fact, there will be no money to pay for anything at all.

Ukraine’s economic survival, and the avoidance of a much more dangerous war than the one currently confined within its borders, depends on the restoration of workable political and economic relations between Ukraine, Russia and the EU. This is unlikely to be achieved while the US and NATO are deliberately perpetuating tensions in the region in their own short-sighted, militaristic and economic interests.

Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine.

Photo Credit - Daniel de Wit, SP Nijmegen