AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he would argue for a “yes” vote in an upcoming referendum on a treaty on closer ties between the European Union and Ukraine which threatens to overshadow his presidency of the 28-member bloc.
Rutte’s remarks came a day after European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned that a rejection of the treaty by Dutch voters could lead to a “continental crisis”.
While the vote, on establishing an association agreement between the EU and its troubled eastern neighbor, is not binding, most Dutch parties have said they would feel bound to take a “no” into account.
It had not been previously clear whether the government would weigh in on the campaign or instead hope that the vote would be undermined by low turnout.
“I will vote ‘yes’ in the referendum,” Rutte said on public television’s Buitenhof show. “And I and my colleagues will explain why we are doing so. It’s about free trade ... not an accession treaty as its opponents say.”
Anti-European website GeenStijl collected 430,000 signatures to trigger the plebiscite, claiming an association agreement with Ukraine would lead eventually to full membership for the war-torn country of 45 million.
The April referendum will be held during the current Dutch presidency of the European Union, putting pressure on Rutte as a “no” would be a blow to the bloc’s attempts to bring the former Soviet republic further into the EU’s orbit.
Juncker warned that a Dutch rejection of the treaty would play into the hands of Russia, which is backing separatist rebels in a war in eastern Ukraine and annexed its Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is an unpopular figure in the Netherlands, where he is widely blamed for the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, in which 298 died, two-thirds of them Dutch.
While Rutte said Juncker’s remarks were over-the-top, a “no” vote would also evoke memories of the Dutch rejection in a 2005 referendum of a proposed EU constitution, which threw the continental body into a year-long crisis.
“It’s the 2005 trauma. I have an incredible feeling of deja vu,” said one government official who campaigned on the losing side of that vote.
An enthusiastic founding member of the EU, Dutch attitudes to European integration have been cooling ever since the country became a net contributor to the bloc’s budget in 1991.
While most Dutch parties are pro-European, the anti-EU, anti-Muslim Freedom Party of right-wing populist Geert Wilders is leading in polls.
A Maurice De Hond poll on Sunday showed the Freedom Party would win 41 seats in the 150-member parliament in elections now, more than the two coalition parties combined.
Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Ros Russell