Dutch vote on key EU-Kiev pact as Europe watches
(THE HAGUE) - Dutch people were voting Wednesday on whether to back a key EU pact with Ukraine in a referendum triggered by grassroots eurosceptic groups and seen as a yardstick on ties with Brussels.
A slow trickle of the 12.5 million eligible voters began casting ballots in the non-binding popular vote -- with all eyes on whether the 30 percent turnout needed to validate the poll would be met.
The outcome is being closely watched by both the West and Moscow, and a Dutch "No" to the two-year-old treaty with Kiev could pose a headache for the European Union (EU).
"I think it's good to have a referendum, to be able to say what we think of Brussels. It's important," one voter, who identified himself only as Bert, 49, told AFP.
Opinion polls on the eve of the vote on the EU's so-called Association Agreement with Ukraine gave the "No" vote a slight edge.
But it remains unclear what the results could mean for the country -- which currently holds the rotating EU presidency -- and the government has so far been non-committal, saying only it would look at the results.
"I voted against because I don't think the accord is a good thing for the Netherlands," said Nij Tam, 65, adding there were already "too many" countries in the EU.
The "No" camp has highlighted concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and continuing separatist unrest in the east, among reasons to refuse closer ties with Kiev.
One Ipsos poll said some 37 percent said they would vote against, around 33 percent were in favour with the rest undecided.
- Kiev urges 'yes' vote -
Ukraine, where a Moscow-backed president who rejected the cooperation deal was ousted in 2014, has actively campaigned for a "yes" vote.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced confidence in Dutch support, and warned against Kiev becoming a victim of "an internal Dutch discussion about the future of the European Union".
But his inclusion in the so-called Panama Papers tax evasion scandal has also helped turn off some Dutch voters.
Anti-immigrant far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders tweeted to supporters: "Everyone vote today. And vote against!"
As he voted in a working-class district on the outskirts of The Hague, Wilders hailed what he called "the Dutch patriotic spring."
"Today it is not Brussels who decides. It is not The Hague. It is the Dutch people who are deciding our own future," he said.
The referendum organisers have admitted the vote is essentially not about Ukraine, but a way of pushing broader anti-EU sentiment.
They were able to harness a new law allowing referendums on legislative decisions by garnering more than 300,000 signatures.
The Netherlands is now the only member in the 28-nation EU still to ratify the accord -- which has a major trade component -- and the deal has been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.
Aaron Matta, senior researcher at The Hague Institute for Global Justice think-tank, warned of wider repercussions of a "No" vote.
"The Netherlands will perhaps have to find some way of opting out of the agreement," he told AFP.
- EU crisis? -
Both the Liberal Rutte and his junior Labour coalition partner have called for a vote in favour.
And European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has warned a "no" vote "could open the doors to a continental crisis".
"I voted in favour," Karlien Dijkstra, 51, told AFP, saying she thought it would be good for trade, but admitting it had been "difficult to decide."
Russia however, which backs Ukraine's separatist rebels, resents Kiev's tilt towards the West and would relish a vote opposing its plans.
A "No" win could also be seen as a bellwether for Britain's own June referendum on whether to leave the EU, dubbed a "Brexit."
Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, said in Amsterdam this week a vote against the pact "will send a big message to the British electorate that we are not alone in thinking something has fundamentally gone wrong in the direction of the European Union."