A woman attends a flash mob to support a European treaty deepening ties with Ukraine on the eve of a referendum held in the Netherlands, in Kiev, Ukraine, April 5, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko(reuters_tickers)
By Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch voters cast ballots in a national referendum on Wednesday on the European Union's treaty with Ukraine, providing a gauge of anti-EU sentiment weeks before Britain puts its membership of the bloc on the line.
Launched by eurosceptic groups, the referendum -- whose result is not binding on the government -- is the first since a 2015 law made it possible to force through plebiscites by gathering 300,000 signatures on the Internet.
While the scope of a ballot expected to deliver a "No" vote is limited to a treaty to bring Ukraine and the EU closer, Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged on Wednesday that some viewed it as a proxy for a broader debate on the way the bloc is being run.
"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 not about collective defence, it is not about new money, it's not about free movement of employees."
On the opposite side was the populist, eurosceptic leader Geert Wilders, who called on voters to use the opportunity to send a message of protest to Europe's leaders by saying "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.
"I hope that later, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, other countries will follow."
Whatever voters' motivation, a clear vote against the treaty in the run-up to Britain's June 23 referendum on whether to quit the EU could escalate into a domestic or even a Europe-wide political crisis.
Dutch leaders say voting against the treaty would also hand a symbolic victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are widely accused of bringing down an airliner in 2014 with the loss of almost 200 Dutch lives.
It is unclear if that will sway voters nearly two years on, but increasing resentment among the Dutch at the consequences of the EU's open-border policies has propelled Wilders -- who openly opposes Muslim immigration -- to the top of public opinion polls.
The ballot also taps in to a more deep-seated anti-establishment sentiment highlighted by a resounding rejection in 2005 of a European Union constitution, also in a referendum.
A CLEAR 'NO', OR A NARROW ONE?
According to surveys, the "No" camp is also forecast to win Wednesday's vote, with the first exit polls expected immediately after polling stations close at 1900 GMT.
Expected turnout is low, however, hovering around the 30 percent minimum needed for a valid result, with many questioning the value of expressing an opinion about a document that has already provisionally gone into effect with the approval of the other 27 EU states.
"I am going to vote, but I don't know what yet," said Jim Sprenger, a gym teacher in Amsterdam. "I don't feel very well informed, but the fact that the outcome may be ignored makes me want to vote 'No'."
If the referendum result is not valid, or the "Yes" vote wins, the process is likely to be written off.
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 honour it, setting the stage for a split.
"It's an advisory referendum, so the only thing the law requires is that we reconsider it," Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Tuesday.
But ignoring a clear "No" would be risky for Rutte's already unpopular government -- which has lost further ground over Europe's refugee debate -- ahead of national elections scheduled no later than March 2017.
While a collapse of Rutte's coalition seems more likely, the Dutch cabinet could in theory use an overwhelming "No" to ask the EU to reopen negotiations with Ukraine.
In that event, officials and diplomats in Brussels say, there are a number of ways in which the Ukraine agreement can be reworked to ensure the bulk of it, already being implemented, remains in force.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt and Svebor Kranjc in Amsterdam and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by John Stonestreet)