Wednesday’s referendum result in the Netherlands may not end up having much impact on Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union. The vote was not legislatively binding; portions of the agreement have already come into effect; the turnout only just scraped above the 30% required to be declared a valid result; and other European governments seem determined to press on.
Rather than a vote to decide the fate of Europe’s relationship with Ukraine, the referendum has been presented by much of the western European media and politicians as a poll of support for the EU project itself.
Tensions are high at the moment with the Continent’s economy failing to pull out of a long slump, latent nationalist and religious tendencies agitated by Islamist terrorism and the refugee crisis, and the rise of populist, once-fringe political movements. The Dutch vote has been seized upon as a bellwether ahead of Britain’s June 23 referendum on leaving the EU.
Indeed, one of the organizers of the campaign that triggered the referendum, Arjan van Dixhoorn, has admitted that “we don’t really care about Ukraine.”
The No-campaign was backed by Geert Wilder’s far-right Freedom Party and the hard-left, once Maoist, Socialist Party, along with the Party for the Animals (self-explanatory) and 50PLUS—a party for old-age pensioners.
But unusually, the Dutch referendum debate the saw significant involvement of foreign political activists.
Of course it was not surprising to see Ukrainian politicians and activists courting the Dutch, with even a tiny fringe of hard-left anti-EU activists producing pamphlets in opposition to the Association Agreement.
Nor was it a shock to see Russian state media mobilize against the ratification of the treaty as part of the ongoing, undeclared war on Ukraine.
But it was surprising to see politicians from other EU states campaigning, and even arranging funding for the No-campaign. Chief among them, Nigel Farage of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP).
On the same day that the Dutch went to the polls, The Telegraph reported that the European Parliament is investigating the use of EU subsidies by a think tank linked to Farage, the Institute for Direct Democracy in Europe, to pay for a high-profile advertising campaign that called for the referendum last September.
Farage admitted to The Telegraph that he had brokered the deal to fund the £31,000 ($43,581) full-page advert in the popular daily De Telegraaf, but claimed that the use of EU money to pay for political campaigns was not a violation of any rules.
From the report:
“[My involvement] in raising funding wasn’t particularly big in that I encouraged the political parties and all the European groups I’m a member of to use their resources. We use that to put the other side of the argument, within the rules of parliament. I’m a member of the ADDE [Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe], and the IDDE think tank is part of that.”
But for Farage to present the IDDE as merely another member of the ADDE that took his suggestion is misleading.
According to the Belgian registration records for the IDDE, one of the think tanks four administrators is Paul Nuttall, deputy leader of UKIP. Meanwhile Executive Director Laure Ferarri has served as head of PR for the British delegation to the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group in the European Parliament, of which Nigel Farage is the co-president. Indeed, Ferarri was described in a EurActive profile as “Farage’s protegee.”
In contrast to Farage, Bart Nijman, founder of the campaigning wing of the GeenStijl website that launched the campaign for a referendum and no-vote, was rather more blunt, saying that the money for the advert came from the IDDE:
“Via UKIP…So it is European money, but Eurosceptic European money. Big thanks for that, Nigel Farage.”
Farage arrived in the Netherlands last week to campaign in person, both appearing in a video spot for the No-campaign and speaking at public events.
While it does, of course, seem odd for a politician who condemns the EU for impinging on national sovereignty to campaign in a foreign country on a referendum deciding that state’s relations with another, foreign land, one could assume that such moves are merely opportunistic attempts to build up political momentum ahead of the British referendum.
And in testament to that, Farage did tweet, as victory for the No-campaign became apparent, that Dutch activists would return the favor and campaign for Brexit: https://twitter.com/Nigel_Farage/status/717817897620545538
But Farage’s language on the issue suggests that Europe’s relationship with Ukraine was just as much his target as the EU itself. At a rally on Monday night, Farage claimed that a no-vote would be a “hammer blow” against an “expansionist EU plot.
Such words would not seem out of place on Russian state television and indeed, Farage has been gifted hours upon hours of air time on RT over the years.
The unfortunate fact is that Nigel Farage has held views that chime strikingly with those of the Kremlin when it comes to foreign policy since long before a Dutch referendum could give his Brexit ambitions a boost.
Farage backs the Russian position on not only Ukraine, but also Syria, calling for the West to back the barbarous Assad dictatorship and completely eliding any opposition groups between the regime and ISIS.
He is regular user of that most cringe-worthy opener: “I’m not a friend or fan of Putin.. But.” This is likely a Pavlovian response from the leader of a party regularly accused of closet racism.
This phrase appears, for example, in a recent spot on the couch with ardent dictator-lover George Galloway, on his Sputnik show… on RT.
We can see this as far back as August, 2008, when Farage appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show and was quizzed by Emily Maitlis on his thoughts on Russia’s war with Georgia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPCFV8EaAsQ
Farage said that he believed that the conflict that began in South Ossetia was caused by the EU and NATO “encroaching upon Russia.”
A claim that often accompanies and underpins this story, is that Russia was betrayed by the West during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Apologists for the Kremlin, including figures as highly placed as the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, have often said that a deal was struck in the final days of the USSR, between the US or NATO, and the Soviet leadership, in which it was agreed that there would be no NATO expansion eastwards as the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. Putin himself has used this argument to harrang the West. But in a 2014 interview with a Russian state-owned news outlet, Mikhail Gorbachev himself declared that there had been no such agreement:
The topic of “NATO expansion” was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either. Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces from the alliance would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement, mentioned in your question, was made in that context. Kohl and [German Vice Chancellor Hans-Dietrich] Genscher talked about it.
Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled. The agreement on a final settlement with Germany said that no new military structures would be created in the eastern part of the country; no additional troops would be deployed; no weapons of mass destruction would be placed there. It has been observed all these years. So don’t portray Gorbachev and the then-Soviet authorities as naïve people who were wrapped around the West’s finger. If there was naïveté, it was later, when the issue arose. Russia at first did not object.
Back in 2008, when Maitlis attempted to get Farage to square his backing of Russia in a war with its tiny neighbor with his outspoken defense of national sovereignty, he squirmed, clinging to justifications about the will of Russian-speaking people, much as the Kremlin has done so with regards to the Donbass:
EMILY MAITLIS: All right. Well where does this actually leave Georgia? Because you I imagine, UKIP I imagine values the independence of a sovereign territory.
NIGEL FARAGE: Of course.
EMILY MAITLIS: Now President Saakashvili is desperate to protect that sovereign territory with his acceptance into NATO. Should that be sped up now?
NIGEL FARAGE: We believe in sovereignty. We believe in national self determination. Of course we do. But we also believe that Britain right at the moment is actually engaged in too many foreign wars and some of the rhetoric that one sees through the newspapers in Britain today is highly dangerous stuff.
EMILY MAITLIS: But what ..
NIGEL FARAGE: We should not be getting too involved in this.
EMILY MAITLIS: But you can't have it both ways can you? You can either say we want to respect Georgia's boundaries. We want to make that territory safe. We accept that that will come with NATO membership.
NIGEL FARAGE: Well I don't think the situation in South Ossetia is all that straightforward actually given the number of Russian speaking people that live there. You know it isn't as straightforward as people sometimes are pointing out.
And I repeat if we take NATO, if we take the European Union and we keep moving these boundaries further to the East and closer to Russia we are stirring up and provoking a confrontation that could come perhaps in the space of the next few years. We shouldn't, we simply shouldn't be doing it.
Farage repeated his position on the risk of “provoking” Russia by dint of granting membership of the EU to Georgia and Ukraine at UKIP's party conference later that year.
None of this is to say that Farage or UKIP is in the pay of the Kremlin or such (though there are interesting questions to be raised about one the main backers of the Brexit campaign), but Farage’s adherence to these lines on foreign affairs is certainly remarkable for a man whose campaigning usually panders to a rather more parochial, Little England crowd.