A clear majority of people who voted on Wednesday in a Dutch referendum rejected a far-reaching European Union free trade deal with Ukraine, but an exit poll showed turnout may have been too low for the vote to be valid.
As expected, the vote underscored a deep-rooted scepticism about this country's place in Europe. The non-binding Dutch vote came less than three months before British citizens decide in their own referendum whether to leave the EU altogether.
"It looks like the Dutch people said 'no' to the European elite and 'no' to the treaty with the Ukraine," tweeted popular anti-Islam, anti-EU lawmaker Geert Wilders. "The beginning of the end of the EU."
According to the exit poll conducted by Ipsos for national broadcaster NOS, turnout was 32 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percent for the turnout, which would need to reach 30 percent for the vote to be valid. The poll was taken at 40 polling stations where about 80,000 voters were registered.
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While it was unclear if the referendum would be valid, the sentiment among those in the nation of 17 million who voted was clear: 64 percent were against the pact and 36 percent in favour. The exit poll had a 5 percent margin of error for the result.
The Netherlands is a founding member of the EU, a trading nation that benefits from its internal market, but paradoxically also a hotbed of Euroscepticism that rejected the bloc's proposed constitution in a 2005 referendum.
Exactly what will happen to the agreement if the vote is declared valid remains unclear.
But in a first reaction, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: "If the turnout is above 30 percent, with such a big victory for the 'No' camp, you can't just go ahead and ratify the treaty."
However, Rutte said he would not be rushed into action, saying he wanted to discuss the result in his cabinet, at the European Union, and in the Dutch parliament, a process that could take "days if not weeks".
Wilders said he hoped the vote would give hope to other nations questioning their place in Europe.
After casting his ballot at a school on the outskirts of The Hague, Wilders said the Dutch referendum could act as an incentive to British voters to reject the EU in June.
"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," he said.
Dutch opponents of the EU-Ukraine association agreement argued that its ultimate goal is bringing Kiev into the EU and argued the bloc shouldn't be dealing with Ukraine's leadership because of the widespread corruption in the country.
Supporters of the deal said it is not a membership stepping stone and would boost trade and help battle corruption and improve human rights in the former Soviet republic on Europe's restive eastern edge. They also say it is important for the EU to implement such agreements to boost stability at its borders.
"It's about solidarity with a country which wants to develop itself," Rutte said after voting. "I would like for Ukraine to have both a stable relationship with Europe and with Russia."
Much of the deal between the EU and Ukraine, already ratified by the other 27 member states, is being provisionally implemented but the Netherlands' ratification, approved last year by both houses of parliament, was put on ice pending the outcome of the referendum.
In an interview earlier this year with a Dutch newspaper, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that a "No" vote "would open the door to a great continental crisis."
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