THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A clear majority of people who voted Wednesday in a Dutch referendum rejected a far-reaching European Union free trade deal with Ukraine, and with all votes counted it was clear that the threshold of 30 percent voter turnout would be met and the result would be valid.
The turnout was at 32.2 percent, broadcasters NOS and RTL reported after all votes were counted and reported by municipalities to national news agency ANP's election service.
While it was long in doubt if the result would be valid, the sentiment among those in the nation of 17 million who voted was crystal clear: According to the ANP count, 61.1 percent rejected the EU-Ukraine pact and 38.1 percent voted for it. The remaining votes were blank or spoiled.
"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."
As expected, the vote underscored a deep-rooted skepticism 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.
The Netherlands is a founding member of the EU, a trading nation that benefits from its internal market, but paradoxically also a hotbed of Euroskepticism that rejected the bloc's proposed constitution in a 2005 referendum.
Exactly what will happen to the agreement now 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."
The referendum was the first in the Netherlands since the 2005 rejection of the EU constitution and was forced by a loose coalition of Euro-skeptics that managed to gather nearly 430,000 signatures in just six weeks last year. Most often, deals like this are ratified by the governments of the 28 EU members, without any referendums.
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. President Petro Poroshenko, a candy magnate who won elections in 2014, has been accused, following the leak of millions of records on offshore accounts, of abusing his office and of tax evasion by moving his business offshore, possibly depriving the country of millions of dollars in taxes.
Poroshenko's rise to power began after Ukrainians rose up against their government in February 2014 because of then-President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the association agreement.
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.
Ukrainian ambassador to the Netherlands, Olexander Horin, called the agreement a "plan for reforms which Ukraine has to execute in order to become a really civilized, liberal democracy with socially-oriented market economy."
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."
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed.