BRUSSELS (AP) — The Netherlands won a concession from European Union leaders Thursday that could pave for the Dutch to approve, and the EU to finally ratify, an agreement on closer ties with Ukraine, regarded as a landmark deal to counter Russian influence.
Dutch Prime Minister Rutte said he now had the necessary guarantees to start pushing the deal through the Dutch Parliament as of Friday and to remove the objections that led to a referendum defeat of the EU-Ukraine agreement in the spring. The Netherlands was the lone holdout in the 28-nation bloc on ratifying the agreement, which needs unanimity.
"I am going to fight to get a majority" in Parliament, Rutte said after the EU summit approved a text to go with the agreement to soothe Dutch concerns the deal would have automatically allowed Ukraine into the EU. "We will have to see. It won't be easy. We'll have to work hard for it."
If approved, the deal would allow the EU to show a united front in the face of an increasingly hostile Russia and to boost trade and cooperation with Ukraine, an eastern European nation that is finding it hard to keep out of Moscow's sphere of influence.
"The EU can now keep a united front against the destabilizing policies of Russia," Rutte said, arguing that not getting EU backing would have been a perfect Christmas present for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
EU President Donald Tusk said it was now up to the Dutch to come through.
"It addresses all the concerns addressed by the Dutch voters," Tusk said. "Now the responsibility lies with the Netherlands."
The EU-Ukraine association agreement looked like a done deal until the Dutch government was forced into a referendum on it early this year. The rejection by Dutch voters left the EU in a bind since the agreement needs unanimous approval from member countries.
Among the additions Rutte obtained were assurances that the Ukraine agreement is not a stepping stone to EU membership and cannot be used as one in the future. The deal also does not provide a collective security guarantee or extra money for Ukraine and requires the government in Kiev to do more to counter corruption.
Rutte said getting the deal was essential for national and geopolitical reasons, pointing time and again to Russian involvement in the Ukraine crisis and its annexation of Crimea.
The Netherlands has national elections on March 15, and the move to sidestep the advisory referendum results with an updated agreement might not necessarily play well with an electorate increasingly prone to snubbing the political elite.
In a tweet, anti-Islam and anti-EU lawmaker Geert Wilders posted a photo of Rutte with the Dutch words for "Resign and go."
Rutte also acknowledged the challenge ahead.
"This is not an election-winning point. It is not a vote winner," he said. "But my job is ultimately to make decisions in the interest of the Netherlands and our security."
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.