The title of this post refers to a well known literary phrase that means “the rash or inexperienced will attempt things that wiser people are more cautious of”.
And the phrase could refer to me, attempting to tackle the subject-matter of this post or to the writer of an article about Ukraine, the Netherlands and the EU.
Europe’s uneasy relationship with Russia spans many years, in fact more accurately, centuries. Somewhat disingenuously, the Russo-European narrative seems usually to identify the Russians as the ones with supposed aggressive intentions. Unless you are Russian or are a historical scholar, you could be forgiven for also making this simple mistake. For that is often how the relationship has always been presented to the public.
However, this popular perception is far from the truth. The Russians have almost never been the aggressors and have had to endure countless attempts to “Europeanise” their motherland. You will note here that I am being kind to Napoleon, Hitler and the rest of their ilk with this euphemism.
I do not intend to do a geo-political analysis here, other than to briefly set the scene before presenting the article in question. I will make my reference point in a modern context, since most people will then understand the situation more easily, although the map of Europe and Russia is not that much different today than it was at the beginning of the last century. The countries that border the Russian Federation have always had a difficult and tumultuous existence. But not because of the actions of Russia!
Every time some or other aspiring European dictator has attempted to invade Russia, the conflict has involved Russia’s neighbours, neighbours who Russia has lived in peace with for many years. And in every single instance, the Russians have beaten off the aggressors, often at great human cost to all concerned. In the aftermath of such reckless ventures, the Russians have sought to heighten the security of their nation, sometimes through overt and covert political influence and sometimes through negotiated treaties.
A further complication for the “in-between countries” has been the “East-West” tussle. The East being represented by Russia and the West being represented by the United States of America together with their proxy countries in Europe. Interestingly, the feelings in Europe after the Second World War to try to get along with Soviet Russia, caused the USA to have to use continual strong influence – political, economic and military – to keep Europe following the dictates of American foreign policy.
With the collapse of communism, Russia and Europe became natural partners in many fields, whilst still strongly maintaining their respective national identities. The multi-cultural Europeans adapted to this new situation seamlessly, but the USA remained suspicious. Naturally, Russia’s neighbours sought to deal with their delicate situation in the best way possible, by being friendly and co-operative with both sides. But a new emerging super-power was not something that the USA was prepared to accept. Especially if it meant losing influence in one of the richest and most prosperous regions of the world.
So as pressure was brought to bear on Russia’s neighbours to show more favour towards the West than towards Russia, tensions started to develop. It was sad to see Ukraine, a country that was struggling to drag itself up into prosperity after years of communist rule, become the pawn of East-West power politics. There is no point in discussing why and who was to blame for the mess that developed in that poor country. You can probably guess what my opinion is.
What is more troubling is the reaction to one of the trigger points that started the whole catastrophe in the first place.
After a glorious and roller coaster ride to riches and prosperity, following nearly a half century of war and destruction, Europe found itself in a quandary. The project devised to bring riches and prosperity slowly developed into the structure called the European Union (EU). And those countries on the outside, looking in, wanted to be part of the success story.
Foolishly, recklessly, greedily or unwittingly, the leaders thought that the expansion of the EU was the best way forward. Although initially this expansion seemed to be a good idea, recent events have proven the opposite to be the case. And the way that this was done is probably proving to be the EU’s downfall.
The expansion of the EU has followed what is known in politics as the “locomotive” theory. This theory maintains that the countries that are less advanced, less prosperous and with lower standards will be “encouraged’, “coerced” or “dragged” up to the level of the countries that are more advanced, more prosperous and with higher standards, if they are joined in a common association. Unfortunately, the opposite effect appears to be what has happened in the EU.
Understandably, some EU citizens are starting to wake up to the fact that if we carry on like before, our region is going to go down the drain faster than it already is.
Apart from full EU membership, the EU has many bilateral agreements on many issues with many countries. I believe that there is a big difference between a trade specific agreement and a political agreement. An Association Agreement with the EU is not accession or even the start of accession, but it is acknowledgement that we in the EU agree that the applying country is worthy of a closer association with the EU and it grants certain privileges.
Ukraine has been seeking to conclude an Association Agreement with the European Union for some years now. Ukraine had originally tried to get provisions placed in the Agreement that would accelerate their path to EU accession. However these provisions were rejected.
The final agreement was eventually signed between the two parties and the process of ratification has been underway in each EU member country before implementation can begin. However, ratification in the Netherlands did not go so smoothly.
The Ukraine/EU Association Agreement contains many noble, desirable and reasonable provisions and values but merely writing these things on a piece of paper means very little. I am not yet convinced that Ukraine and the Ukranian people, as a nation, are ready yet to totally commit themselves to the terms that are contained in the Agreement.
And neither do the Dutch.
If the EU carries on endorsing and supporting countries with standards of morals, ethics and human rights below those which we demand in Europe then there is no hope for improvement and the future here looks bleak.
Since in most EU countries, ratification of these sorts of EU agreements are usually made by national parliaments with no regard to the wishes of each of the country’s citizens, I loudly applaud the Dutch for taking this action and making a stand.
- Perhaps the Dutch believe that Ukraine has not fully honoured their EU Partnership and Co-operation Agreement enough to progress to the next step.
- Perhaps the Dutch believe that in order to be granted EU Association, merely appearing to satisfy the bureaucratic legalese is not sufficient.
- Perhaps the Dutch believe that the EU has to stop buckling to outside pressure that is forcing us to accept undeserving countries into “our club”.
- Perhaps the Dutch believe that EU Association is not a right, but an objective that must be rightfully earned.
- Perhaps the Dutch feel that, until the Ukranians can show themselves to be worthy of EU Association, with all that it encompasses, then such an approval will not be forthcoming.
- Perhaps the Dutch are not so stupid to be fooled by the premise that to grant EU Association to the Ukraine causes Russia to be punished.
In the article below, the author states, and probably correctly, that the Referendum outcome is likely to make no difference to the Netherlands, Ukraine or to the EU. But that is beside the point.
What I object to, most strongly, is the way that the author portrays the Dutch citizen’s decision.
Instead of respecting their decision, and exhorting the Ukrainians to raise their standards to the level of the rest of Europe, he derides the Dutch and makes it sound like they are partly to blame for the catastrophe in Ukraine.
Shame on you, Andreas!
by Andreas Umland (7 April 2016)
“On 6 April 2016, the Netherlands held a national referendum where the Dutch people were asked speak out for or against the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine – a large treaty between Brussels and Kyiv, signed in 2014 and ratified in 2015. As expected, the Association enemies won the referendum with approximately two thirds speaking out against, and circa one in favor. Yet, for everybody who knows a bit about the EU, the nationwide, expensive and low-turnout Dutch plebiscite on this EU-Ukraine contract looks itself odd.
Why was the Dutch referendum such an unusual procedure? The European Community/Union has, during the last 60 years, concluded dozens of association, free-trade, stabilization and cooperation agreements with countries around the world ranging from South Africa to Chile. Association and similar arrangements are neither new nor exceptional, but an old, standard tool of EU foreign policy, and practiced by other international organizations too. They are, for good reasons, mostly ignored by the general public in Europe and elsewhere.
It is true that the recent Association Agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are larger than previous such EU treaties. These three agreements include provisions for establishing, between the three countries and the Union, so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas. While one can thus make an argument that these treaties have novel features, this is still hardly enough ground for elevating the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement to an issue suitable for a national referendum. In view of the relative inconsequentiality of the EU’s association agreements for the Netherlands’ future, organizing a popular vote on one of these treaties is bizarre.
This is even more so as the EU’s new agreement with Ukraine – like those with Moldova and Georgia – does not include an explicit EU membership perspective. Although large, these three new European covenants thus remain classical international treaties that, so far, do not envisage a fundamental change of the EU itself. Why did Dutch citizens care to vote on an EU association agreement that does not mention a membership perspective? It would make more sense, instead, to hold referenda on the EU’s older association agreements with Turkey or the western Balkan states that do include membership perspectives, and are thus potentially more consequential for Dutch citizens.
It is true that one day Ukraine could become a member of the Union, and that many Ukrainians see this Agreement as a stepping stone towards EU accession – even though they know that this can only happen in the distant future. It is also true that each new member country of the EU changes the Union to one degree or another, as well as, indirectly, also the Netherlands’ location in world affairs. Yet, why had neither Holland, nor any other member state of the EU so far bothered to conduct a popular vote on the accession of other countries to the EC/EU? Why had the Dutch apparently not cared enough about the simultaneous accession of 10 East European countries in 2004/2007 to the EU, yet they, on 6 April 2016, expressed their national will on a mere foreign treaty of the EU with another East European country?
Over the last two years, pro-Kremlin Russian and other enemies of the Ukrainian nation have been proclaiming loudly that the EU’s Association Agreement with Kyiv violates Russian interests, and thus destabilizes European security. Yet, this Agreement is mainly about trade, and not an anti-Russian pact. It does not prevent Ukraine from having free-trade and other far-reaching agreements with third parties, including Russia. Russia’s wish that Ukraine should enter a Moscow-dominated trade and customs bloc, like the recently established Eurasian Economic Union, never had any significant support among Ukraine’s political elite, not even in the former pro-Russian administrations of Ukrainian presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin too late, in the process, signaled its unexpected opposition to Kyiv’s association with Brussels. Instead, it had earlier signaled its consent to Ukraine even entering the EU, and for years simply ignored Ukraine’s negotiations of the treaty with the EU. Only in 2013, after the Agreement had been already fully formulated and initialed, did Russia come out strongly against it. As EU officials will confirm, the Kremlin’s claims about allegedly large Russian losses from Ukraine’s association with the EU are hyperbolic. Moscow’s loudly pronounced fears are disproportionate to the treaty’s actual repercussions for Russian-Ukrainian trade – which has recently, because of the war, been reduced to a minimum anyway. Russia’s economic damage from its aggressive reaction to the Association Agreement already exceeds by far any losses it may be suffering from the treaty’s implementation.
The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is neither important for the Netherlands, nor does it mean much for the internal affairs of the EU, nor is it, as such, a threat to European security. What makes it nevertheless so explosive is the concern to Moscow that this Agreement constitutes Ukraine’s chance to become a truly liberal-democratic and economically dynamic country. The agreement provides Ukrainians today with the hope for a survival of their young state, as well as for a brighter future and new opportunities for their children. If successfully implemented, the Agreement will help Ukraine to gradually become a politically stable and economically successful member of larger Europe.
It is this prospect that would indeed constitute a grave threat to Putin’s kleptocratic clique: Ukraine’s consolidation and rebirth could encourage the Russian people to rise up and demand political change similar to the one the Ukrainians enacted with their two initially peaceful uprisings of 2004 and 2013/2014. A diffusion of EU values and ideas via Ukraine to Russia would spell the end of the Putin system. That is the predominant reason why the Kremlin has reacted to aggressively to Ukraine’s turn to the EU.
On 17 July 2014, the 298 crew members and passengers, most of them Dutch citizens, of flight MH17 became victims of Russia’s current rulers’ ruthless resistance against the spread of democracy and freedom, in Eastern Europe. Today few informed observers would question the Kremlin’s full responsibility for this horrible event: The high-tech anti-aircraft missile that hit the airliner at an altitude of over 10 km must have been of Russian origin, and could have been operated only by well-trained, i.e. Russian, soldiers. Some commentators in the Netherlands and elsewhere still blame the Ukrainian state for not timely identifying the emerging threat for civilian air transport in the Donbass. What they forget, however, is that the Ukrainian state was not any longer present in, and had incomplete information on, the so-called “separatist” territories where the Russian high-tech installation had appeared shortly before the incident. The Dutch Safety Board, in its recent report on the event, criticizes the – in July 2014 – fragile Ukrainian state for not recognizing the growing risk. Yet, the Dutch Safety Board did not mention, in its report, another state which had full knowledge of the risk of using high-tech anti-aircraft weapons in Ukraine – because that state had purposefully sent these weapons into the Ukrainian state in order to destabilize it and kill Ukrainians.
The obvious weakness of the Ukrainian state that many westerners lament with regard to its handling of the unclear situation in summer 2014 was also what, in the first place, had led to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, in spring 2014. The Ukrainian state was not only unable to prevent the death of almost three hundred civilians on flight MH17. The Ukrainian state was, in 2014, also not in a position to protect its own borders, organize its own army, and to save the life of at least 9000 Ukrainians who have died since, as a result of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine. The small Netherlands, as one of the larger western trading partners of, and investors in, Russia are – like various other EU countries economically engaged with Moscow – indirectly co-financing the Kremlin’s foreign military operations in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria – including the construction and deployment of expensive BUK anti-aircraft missiles.
The citizens of the Netherlands have nevertheless, in their referendum, decided to make a present to the Kremlin, as their No vote constitutes a major symbolic victory in its hybrid war against Ukraine. To be sure, the Dutch popular rejection of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement will have few practical consequences for today’s foreign and domestic affairs of either the EU or the Netherlands. It collected only slightly more than the 30% minimum turnout needed, and will, in any way, not cancel the Association Agreement.
However, the rejection by Holland’s population of the Association Agreement is a propaganda triumph for Putin, will be a lasting embarrassment for the Dutch nation, and constitutes a public humiliation of millions of Ukrainians who, during the last years, have been fighting both peacefully and, on the East Ukrainian battlefields, with arms for their national liberation and European integration. The Dutch referendum vote against Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU is a setback for the development towards a peaceful and united Europe, and a stab in the back for Russia’s democratic opposition to Putin. The Dutch vote will send a disturbing signal to other nations of the post-Soviet area, including the Russian people, who are trying to free themselves from the Kremlin’s current power holders’ neo-authoritarian tutelage, to become instead parts of larger Europe.”
Normally, this article would have been a contender for Peter Smith’s “Funniest Story of the Month” competition. However, it was disqualified because, although the twisted logic of the article sounds plausible, I can only believe that the writer of such nonsense deliberately set out to make fun of us, and that is not the purpose of the competition.
But that is not all!
The following comment was made by “LT” to the article above. Since “LT” provides an answer to many of the points raised in the article, I thought that it is relevant to add his comment here: