By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A Dutch website said on Sunday it had garnered enough signatures to force the Netherlands to hold a non-binding referendum on the EU's association agreement with Ukraine, in a move meant to signal popular dissatisfaction with Dutch European policy.
GeenStijl, a satirical news website known for its irreverent and raucous takes on controversial subjects ranging from Islam to immigration, said it had collected more than 440,000 signatures - far more than the 300,000 needed under Dutch law to trigger such a vote.
"YOU did it, out of love for democracy in the Netherlands and Europe, and to send a signal to The Hague and Brussels," the website told its readers in a post on Sunday evening. Any referendum is likely to be held during the Dutch presidency of the European Union, which starts in January.
Though the signatures must still be vetted for authenticity and eligibility by electoral authorities, the unexpected scale of interest is seen as an unwelcome challenge to the broadly pro-EU consensus in The Hague, even if it is unlikely to have any impact on Dutch government policy.
A founding member of the 28-member bloc, the Netherlands has in recent years cooled on European integration amid controversies about immigration from poorer new members in the East and rising poll showings by the anti-EU Freedom Party of right-wing populist Geert Wilders.
"The petition will definitely bolster the broader Eurosceptic and right-wing populist subculture. Expect more petitions," Cas Mudde, a Dutch specialist in political populism at the University of Georgia, told Reuters.
"It is a purely consultative referendum, which will almost certainly not change the Dutch position. I doubt turnout will be high, which will undermine the result," he added.
The website, which has a broadly anti-EU editorial line, said it chose the association agreement as a subject for a referendum simply because it was an EU-related topic eligible for a vote under Dutch electoral law.
But it also argued that the agreement, under which the EU will provide help and financial aid to Ukraine in return for it implementing economic and political reforms, is a major step towards membership for the East European country, which is fighting a war against Russian-backed separatists in its East.
"Have you ever been asked what you think of such an expansion of the EU?" asked the website.
The Netherlands' relationship with Moscow has been badly strained by the shooting down of an airliner with 298 people on board last year over Eastern Ukraine, two thirds of whom were Dutch.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)