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Polls open in referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal

By Associated Press in The Hague, Netherlands | China Daily | Updated: 2016-04-07 08:13

The Dutch opened voting on Wednesday in a referendum on a far-reaching free trade deal meant to foster closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union that has run into opposition in the Netherlands where many see it as evidence of unwanted EU expansionism.

The nonbinding vote exposes deep divisions about the Netherlands' place in Europe and comes less than three months before British citizens decide in their own referendum whether to leave the EU altogether.

Dutch opponents of the EU-Ukraine association agreement argue its ultimate goal is bringing Kiev into the EU. Supporters say it is not a membership steppingstone and will boost trade and help battle corruption and improve human rights in the former Soviet republic on Europe's restive eastern edge.

Much of the deal between the EU and Ukraine is already being provisionally implemented, but the Netherlands' ratification, approved last year by both houses of Parliament, was put on ice pending the outcome of the referendum.

Exactly what will happen to the agreement if the Dutch vote against it remains unclear, but politicians all say Prime Minister Mark Rutte's coalition government will have to take the result seriously. The advisory referendum is declared valid only if voter turnout is over 30 percent.

Euroskepticism hotbed

The Netherlands is a founding member of the EU, and a trading nation that benefits from the EU's internal market, but paradoxically it also is a hotbed of Euroskepticism that rejected the bloc's proposed Constitution in a 2005 referendum.

In an interview earlier this year with a Dutch newspaper, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that a "No" vote "would open the door to a great continental crisis".

The referendum, the first in the Netherlands since the country rejected the EU Constitution, was forced by a loose coalition of Euroskeptics that managed to gather nearly 430,000 signatures in just six weeks last year.

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