Tuesday, 29 September 2015

8 antwoorden over het Oekraïens associatieverdrag waardoor je je niet langer een tokkie hoeft te voelen

Thierry Baudet, frontman van het Geenpeil-referendum, gelooft dat de Nederlandse bevolking 'geen stel tokkies is' en dat zij goed en feitelijk over het associatieverdrag met Oekraïne kunnen oordelen.
Het is dan wel jammer dat hij in hetzelfde stuk veel feitelijke uitglijers maakt, zoals dat het associatieverdrag de bevoegdheden van de EU zou uitbreiden en dat het verdrag aanstuurt op een oorlog met Rusland. Ik geloof ook dat Nederlanders slim zijn, maar door dit soort misinformatie worden we wel om de tuin geleid. Een eerlijk debat behoeft een gedegen en feitelijke uitleg over het verdrag. Daarom schrijf ik hier, in het Nederlands nog wel, een heuse 'explainer'.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A referendum on Ukraine and the EU would be an undemocratic farce

Dutch "shockblog" and political underbelly for the Great Angry White Male Geenstijl has launched a petition for a referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement signed last year. They have had to be corrected on a series of lies ever since. They downplayed texts that suggested Putin would invade the EU if this association agreement goes through - even though it has been active for over a year - after Euroskeptic blogger Chris Aalbers called it an explicit lie. They now call it "bringing a war within our "sphere of influence", as if the EU, spearheaded by Merkel's negotiations with Putin, hasn't already picked sides ever since the invasion of Crimea. They also outright state that politicians are lying on the issue of eventual Ukrainian membership of the EU, providing less than zero evidence on this matter. To the contrary, all politicians have vehemently denied EU membership to Ukraine and given the toxic environment for new memberstates (e.g. Turkey), we should take their words at face value.

For an action group with a liberal approach to facts and motivated more by sentiment than argument to lead a referendum debate will lead to an appalling result that has nothing to do with democracy. It's better if we not had it.

The agreement is democratic - the referendum won't be

Despite everything GeenPeil and Aalbers might tell you the agreement has been set on democratic terms. It was negotiated between the government of Ukraine and the Council of Ministers, which includes all EU heads of State. It was then ratified both by the Verkhovna Rada and the European Parliament. Furthermore it was discussed, critiqued and then approved by both chambers in the Dutch House of Parliament this year. The opponents of the deal have two objections: the first one of them is that "no politician has read this long and boring agreement in full". If that were true, however, it would be spectacularly unlikely that an electorate of twelve million would force themselves to read through the legalese. They secondly say that no politician would have had to step down over such an agreement. Lets first highlight that a previous EU agreement on the Stability Pact caused the Slovakian cabinet to resign in 2011. Lets furthermore agree that if this agreement is so hyperbolically scary as its opponents suggest it would have attracted enough controversy when it was signed March 2014 or approved by the Tweede Kamer on the 7th of April or the Eerste Kamer on the 7th of July. The reality is that this association agreement will provide for some trade liberalisation, some developmental aid to Ukraine and the easing of some visa restrictions - important topics but hardly the primary focus of political outrage.
What is very bizarre is that in the same breath as the association agreement the government ratified very similar agreements with Moldavia and Georgia, but no referendum is asked for on those topics. This suggests that the real ire about this agreement does not lie in the facts of the agreements but somewhere else. And that is exactly the problem of having a referendum.

Referenda are incredibly poor instruments to gauge the democratic will over a specific policy issue. For an example of this we don't have to look further than the Dutch referendum on the EU constitution in 2005. As studies have shown, the rejection of the EU constitution rested in large part on a feeling of EU skepticism before the referendum, not on the contents of the agreement. Even more worrying polling found that 30 percent of the electorate used the referendum to signal their disstatisfaction with the then-current government instead of their disstatisfaction with the agreement. Referenda provide the government with incredibly messy and noisy signals about the policy issue at hand. This referendum, started by a shockblog and an Euroskeptic platform, is likely to tell us nothing useful about an association agreement and everything about the underbelly of Euroskepticism coursing through this country.
More than that, in a media environment where policy discussions revel in short soundbites and speculation this deal will not receive fair scrutiny. A very unlikely but catastrophic event such as a Russian war on NATO will be salient in voter's minds, because such a scare image cannot be rationalised away by facts and arguments. Supporters of the agreement will have to agitate against such increasingly shrill doom scenarios of "millions of Ukrainians taking our jobs" and "Putin invading our lands". It is telling that there is no polling data about support for the association agreement, but there is already polling data about support for Ukraine's EU membership. Before the referendum is approved it is already coated in distortion and mistruth.
Finally this referendum is likely to have a spectacularly low turnout. The reality is that the agreement has a negligible real impact on our lives, and it is easier then to convey unrealistic doom scenarios than it is to project that this agreement will lead to paradise on Earth. The 'Yes' vote will only be able to organise and galvanise themselves if they in turn seek to make this debate about a wider EU issue. That strategy backfired in 2005 and is unlikely to be succesful now. As a consequence a silent majority might well lose out on a deal that on balance has a minor but positive influence on their lives.

At its core though this not a discussion about whether we want to have democracy but what kind of democracy we prefer. A referendum is a veto of the loud and angry mob. The democratic system that we chose to have is parliamentary: we elect and scrutinise a group of people who in a more contemplative and deliberative setting look at difficult policy proposals for a difficult world. As a truth-finding exercise both are imperfect, but the latter option allows for more reasoned discussion for the very simple reason that it is easier to dispell untruths when there is a smaller room of people and there is more time for reasoned debate. We chose a system of democracy that isn't just about casting the majority of votes, but that is about providing input from a wide and diverse public through the parliamentary process. On this issue, for instance, the Ukrainian diaspora might have an amplified voice precisely because this agreement matters more for their lives than it matters for the indigenous Dutch. 

On a factual level there is no lack of a democratic deficit on EU expansion. Every national government presides over a veto for new memberstates. Public opinion is a key determinant of whether this veto will be used. It is unsurprising that the rise of Euroskepticism in the Netherlands coincides with an increasingly obstructionist stance on EU expansion by the Rutte government. After the latest negotiation rounds in Greece it was leaked that Rutte was seen by the Greeks as their biggest obstacle and his name was used as a boogeyman towards Tsipras by Angela Merkel.

In conclusion we have a preponderance of democratic avenues to express distatisfaction with the association agreement. A referendum is a silly one because it is ill-suited for the specific policy discussion necessary to critique such an agreement. It will end up being a facetious and ill-informed discussion and thus a tragedy for the democratic process.

The association agreement is a good deal for the EU

Opponents have couched their opposition to the deal on the castles they build in the sky for themselves. Those clouds have been busted, and what is left is a great deal for the EU and Ukraine.

EU skeptics are also very likely to oppose the Common Agricultural Policy. They must take delight from the fact that with Ukraine as a trade partner we have a potential agricultural powerhouse. The second-largest country in Europe (after Russia), Ukraine has an unrivaled fertile soil and very cheap labour costs. Thanks to its proximity to Europe it is likely to be able to conform to EU quality regulation, the agreement will seek to lift the export tariffs and no agricultural subsidy can compete with Ukraine's cheap production costs.
What this agreement further offers in economic terms is access to the Ukrainian labour force. Crucially this access happens on the conditions that individual EU countries want to set for themselves. Many high-educated Ukrainians want to migrate to Europe, and Europe's knowledge economy and greying population can in time welcome these workers. Furthermore the Ukrainian government and business sector specifically invests in IT skills, of which there is a deficit in the European workforce, and English proficiency, which makes Ukrainians suitable to work in international business environments. Added to that the agreement deals with rule harmonisation, making it easier for EU corporations to invest in Ukraine. An increased effort to cooperate on matters of law enforcement seals the deal by tackling the corruption endemic in Ukraine, which will continue to smoothen the path to EU-Ukraine investment.

More important than these economic benefits is that this agreement furthers the values the EU promotes, such as democracy. Further integration with the EU is a key desire of a majority of Ukrainians and was the spark that led to the Maidan protests. Denying these citizens that opportunity that they democractically strikes foul with th. It is therefore disingenuous for Euroskeptic politicians such as Harry van Bommel (SP) to claim that we should reject this agreement because EU-Ukraine relations have led to Russian-Ukrainian military conflict. This is a classic case of victim blaming, where Ukraine wants an agreement, is bullied by Russia to not get the agreement and then is denied that opportunity because short-sighted foreign politicians want to 'protect Ukraine's interest'. It is insulting to the spirit of the people who died on Maidan and are fighting against the rebels in the Donbas that their expressed values and desires shouldn't count because 'we' know better.

Finally, if we believe the claims that we have a Russian army at our doorstep we could do worse than preventing their advance by aiding the one country that is doing their utmost to stop Russian-backed fighting forces. As I previously said it is folly to think that this agreement is the one thorn in the side of Putin. That is a thread that starts with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the recognision of Kosovo, the accession of the Baltic States to the EU and the multilateral support for states as Georgia. If a conflict with Russia were to happen it would happen regardless of this association agreement, and the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas happened before this treaty came into force. In that case we couldn't do worse than alienate and disempower a potential ally.

Conclusion

A referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement would be undemocratic on two counts. A referendum does not create an adequate democratic signal about the actual agreement and undercuts the democratic processes that we have in place for scrutinising these agreements. It also denies the democratic wishes of the Ukrainian people. Someone who claims to believe in democracy can agitate against this agreement using lobbyism, the media and their voting power - a referendum is the most undemocratic step that they can take.