Officially, Dutch voters are casting ballots on European Union trade ties with Ukraine. But, unofficially, the poll is widely seen as a gauge of anti-EU sentiment ahead of a UK vote on whether to leave the EU.
The non-binding referendum held in the Netherlands on Wednesday asks voters if they approve of extending a so-called association agreement to Ukraine that would tighten trade ties between EU members and Kyiv.
Current surveys put the "no" camp slightly ahead, but low voter turnout could keep either side from declaring victory as 30 percent of the Netherlands' 12.5 million eligible voters must cast ballots for the results to be valid.
The EU's 27 other members have already provisionally approved the association agreement, but Dutch ratification of the agreement, already approved by both houses of parliament, was put on hold to await the referendum's outcome.
Proxy referendum on European Union
The referendum is the first of its kind in the country, where non-binding public votes were again made possible by a law in 2015.
Political observers in the Netherlands have said that Wednesday's poll is being used as a gauge of anti-EU sentiment ahead of a June 23 vote in the United Kingdom on whether to remain in the 28-member bloc.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte admitted that some viewed it as a proxy for a broader debate on the way the bloc is being run but emphasized trade ties were at the heart of the ballot.
"It's not about accession to the European Union, as some of the 'against' voters are saying," he told journalists after casting his vote. "It's about solidarity with a country which wants to develop itself, and, I believe, in [the] longer term, I would like for Ukraine to have both a stable relationship with Europe and with Russia."
Populist far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders, however, said the Dutch could send a message of protest to Brussels by voting "no."
"I think many Dutchmen are fed up with more European Union and this treaty with Ukraine that is ... not in the interests of the Dutch people," he told journalists. "So it could be today that it is the start of the end of the European Union as we know it today, and that would be very good."
On Twitter, he later said he "Voted! AGAINST! Today NL can win back a piece of sovereignty from the elite in Brussels and The Hague."
Campaigning in Amsterdam this week, Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, said voting against the deal would "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."
Consequences up in the air
While most agree a "yes" vote would be of little importance, it is unclear exactly what a "no" outcome will mean for the Netherlands - and the EU and Ukraine - as the government has not promised to honor voters' will.
"It's an advisory referendum, so the only thing the law requires is that we reconsider it," Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Tuesday.
In parliament, Rutte's conservative VVD party has said it would also ignore a narrow "no" vote, while junior coalition partner Labour has said it would honor it.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned against Kyiv falling victim to "an internal Dutch discussion about the future of the European Union."
European Union officials in Brussels said the association agreement could be reworked to keep the bulk of the deal in force even if Dutch voters reject the pact.
sms/bk (Reuters, AFP, AP)