Maarten van Tartwijk, Laurence Norman, The Wall Street Journal, 31.10.2016
Prime minister seeking to codify guarantees to keep the eastern nation at arm’s length
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Monday struck a tentative deal with Dutch opposition lawmakers that could keep afloat a key trade pact between the European Union and Ukraine.
Mr. Rutte had been poised to send a bill to parliament on Monday that would have revoked the Dutch government’s signature for the agreement, a step that would have imperiled a pact that has provided a critical lifeline for Ukraine’s struggling economy.
“The danger that seemed imminent yesterday is now eliminated,” Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement.
European officials said weeks of difficult negotiations would now be needed to address Dutch concerns about the accord, which voters rejected in an April referendum.
In a letter to parliament, Mr. Rutte said Monday he will continue talks with the EU and Ukraine in the coming weeks.
It came as Mr. Rutte for the first time in weeks expressed optimism that a majority in Dutch parliament would back his proposals to address voters’ concerns after he made a final plea to lawmakers to support ratification.
“I’m confident that if we negotiate a good result, I will be able to secure a majority in the Netherlands,” he told public broadcaster NOS.
The Ukraine agreement, which came fully into provisional force at the start of 2016, has been backed by all other EU member states and is a key symbol of support for the country’s pro-Western government.
Mr. Rutte said he would not now send a revocation bill to parliament but would instead seek support for a “legally binding” solution that would give voice to Dutch voters’ concerns about the pact. This solution should include a declaration that the accord wouldn't set Ukraine on a pathway to EU membership, he said.
Among other demands: that the pact not provide a collective security agreement with Ukraine or force EU members to cooperate with it militarily; that EU members wouldn’t be obliged to provide more financial assistance to Kiev; and that Ukrainian workers wouldn't have access to the EU labor market.
Some of the demands should be easily met, but Mr. Rutte’s demand that the deal not pave the way for Ukraine’s membership in the EU would be a hard sell. Some EU members have openly called on the bloc to move toward accession talks with Kiev in coming years.
One senior European official said the aim would be to try to negotiate a deal by the time EU leaders meet in Brussels in late December.
Another senior official said Mr. Rutte’s ability to garner support at home was “definitely good news.”
“We’re buying some time but without having started the game of saying how do we actually solve this, the person said.
Even if both houses of the Dutch parliament don’t sign off on the pact, the main focus for the EU is to ensure that it can continue to apply the agreement on a provisional basis.
The legal requirements for that are murky. But EU officials say that as long as the Netherlands doesn't abandon its efforts to ratify the pact at some point, they can continue to apply it provisionally.