Dutch Lawmakers Approve E.U. Trade Deal With Ukraine

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BRUSSELS — In a decision laden with symbolic value, Dutch lawmakers agreed on Tuesday to closer ties and the creation of a free-trade area with Ukraine, completing a long and contentious negotiation that pushed Russia and the European Union to the edge of confrontation.

The agreement became a focal point of the geopolitical battle between Moscow and Brussels over the future of Ukraine, which President Vladimir V. Putin considers an integral part of historic Russia and a vital buffer against an encroaching NATO.

With Tuesday’s vote, Europe declared victory. “Ukraine’s place is in Europe,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, after the vote in the Dutch Senate. “Ukraine’s future lies with Europe.”

Signed in 2014, the pact required the assent of all 28 members of the European Union before it could take effect. The Netherlands was the last holdout, after voters in a national referendum rejected the deal last year in what seemed to be an astonishing win for Mr. Putin.

The agreement still must receive unanimous support at one of the regular meetings of European Union ministers during the coming weeks. But officials said they were confident the pact would easily pass that hurdle.

The split between Europe and Russia dates to the fall of the kleptocratic Ukrainian dictator, Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was forced into exile in Russia in February 2014.

His fall was the climax of a mass protest movement that began in late 2013 when, in an apparent coup for Mr. Putin, Mr. Yanukovych reversed himself and said he was suspending plans to sign a trade deal with the European Union and would instead seek closer economic ties with Russia.

For many of Ukraine’s citizens — particularly those who waved European Union flags during bloody protests in Kiev, where more than 100 were killed — establishing closer ties with Europe became the main way they wanted to transform their country into a democratic state beyond Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Moscow contended that Mr. Yanukovych’s downfall was the result of a Western-inspired coup, and to prevent Ukraine from migrating entirely into the Western camp, it seized Crimea and threw its support to a revolt then taking shape in Ukraine’s east. Europe responded by slapping Russia with strong economic sanctions.

Then there were the Dutch.

Riding a wave of euroskeptic fervor that was sweeping the Continent, populists in the Netherlands used the prospect of closer ties with Ukraine to highlight what they characterized as the folly of European Union policies. Europe, they said, was needlessly becoming entwined with a deeply corrupt, economic basket case already in a state of conflict, and Dutch taxpayers would find themselves on the hook.

The populists gathered enough momentum to force a national referendum, which they won in April 2016 with a low turnout.

Even though that vote was nonbinding, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was forced to seek written assurances from other European leaders to help ensure passage through his country’s Parliament and to placate voters who had opposed the agreement.

Among those assurances: The pact does not make Ukraine a candidate to join the European Union, and it does not commit the bloc to come to Ukraine’s defense.

Even so, the referendum left a poisonous legacy.

“The campaign added up to a hugely effective attack on the E.U. that led to the agreement being halted for months and made the Netherlands look very bad — and, for a while, it even looked as if the deal wouldn’t make it, and that would have been the ultimate foreign policy victory for Russia,” said Sijbren de Jong, an analyst at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies.

For committed Europeans like Mr. Juncker, the Dutch vote signals the new state of affairs on the Continent. Populism, for now, seems to have peaked, and Russian meddling is no longer a secret. One of Europe’s most important foreign policy priorities — to draw in former Soviet republics and set them on a path toward adoption of Western political and economic standards — is bruised but intact.

Mr. Juncker said on Tuesday he wanted the deal to be finalized in time for a summit meeting in mid-July between the European Union and Ukraine.

While there was no concrete evidence of the Russian state meddling in the Dutch referendum, individual Russians and Russian-sympathizing Ukrainian émigrés did lend their support to the cause. That foreshadowed intensified concerns about Russian involvement in European politics during the Dutch general election in March and the French presidential elections in May.

The vote in the Dutch Senate on Tuesday was more symbolic than substantive. As a result of a provisional application of the agreement, Ukraine has already been able to export most of its goods and services to Europe tariff free since last year.

That has helped boost the country’s agriculture and meat sectors, according to Veronika Movchan, the academic director at the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting in Kiev. Ukraine also dropped tariffs on many imports from the European Union, making it easier for manufacturing businesses to buy cheaper machinery, which has helped modernize sectors like agriculture, she said.

With the entry into force of the full agreement, which runs to more than 2,000 pages, European Union and Ukrainian officials are set to hold more regular meetings and exchanges of information in more than two dozen policy areas, including combating terrorism, ensuring the safety of nuclear power, and managing traffic and fishing on the Danube.

For Ukrainians like Ms. Movchan, the Dutch vote on Tuesday has brought added assurance that their country will continue, albeit slowly, toward a gradual economic convergence with the rest of Europe and to becoming “part of the same family.”