Ukraine should hold a referendum on membership in NATO and the EU. This is an idea that began to be articulated during the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14. It has been stated as a desirable goal by President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, most recently on December 1. “In the very near future, the referendums on the accession to NATO and the membership in the European Union will definitely be held in Ukraine and I am confident that the people of Ukraine will support my initiative,” President Poroshenko said. He pointed out that exactly four years ago, on 1 December 2013, over a million Ukrainians came out to Maidan in Kyiv to protest against the Yanukovych regime beatings of student demonstrators, and to protest for a better life free of corruption. The re-emergence of Ukraine as an independent nation in 1991 is partly due to a referendum in which majorities of Ukrainians in every region – including Crimea and Donbas – voted for independence.
Ukraine has every right to be in NATO. It is a sovereign country, free to choose its own alliances. If Ukraine adheres to the North Atlantic Treaty and contributes to collective security, it should be welcomed by other NATO members. Support for NATO membership is high among Ukrainians – higher than it is among some existing members of the alliance. A referendum result that demonstrates this support would move Ukraine along the path to membership. The 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest promised NATO membership to Ukraine as well as to Georgia. Russia’s invasion of Georgia later in 2008 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine early in 2014 delayed the path to membership. A pro-NATO result in a referendum in Ukraine would revitalize NATO as well, showing enduring relevance of NATO as a political organization and as a military alliance. Existing NATO members should welcome a NATO membership referendum in Ukraine, and heed its results with urgency.
Ukraine has every right to be in the European Union. Ukraine is the largest country wholly within Europe. The origins of Ukraine in Kyivan Rus’ are the origins of European civilization. Since the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine has undertaken hundreds of reforms to adhere to EU standards. The effect of this massive transformation of Ukrainian government and society is that Ukraine and the EU now have an Association Agreement, a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, and a visa-free travel reciprocity agreement. Ukrainians show more support for the European Union than citizens of some member countries do. After all, if Britain can hold a referendum to leave the EU, why shouldn’t Ukraine hold a referendum to join the EU? A pro-EU referendum result in Ukraine would be a breath of fresh air to the EU.
Referendums can be used for good or ill. Everything rides on the question that is asked. Dutch citizens were asked a very strange question in a referendum of 6 April 2016. They were asked to approve the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement – but not asked about the EU-Georgia Association Agreement or about the EU-Moldova Association Agreement. The referendum held in the Netherlands was effectively an attack against Ukraine, cloaked in resentment about the EU. The narrow victory for the “no” side delayed the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement for a year. Russian information warfare scored a victory in the Netherlands referendum.
When the will of the people is accurately expressed in a referendum, it can be a powerful force. It gives or takes away legitimacy from policy. The Ukrainian government wants to be in NATO and the EU. On its merits, Ukraine deserves to be in NATO and in the EU. A free and fair vote in a referendum that asks Ukrainians if they want to join NATO and the EU would be extremely powerful. Not only would it give support to the position of the Ukrainian government, but it would force existing members of these organizations to act true to their democratic principles. If and when Ukrainians say “yes” to NATO and to the EU, the course of Ukraine will be clear. It will then be up to existing NATO and EU members to make clear their course. If Russian aggression against Ukraine puts some kind of obstacle in the way of Ukraine joining NATO or the EU, then is is up to the members of NATO and the EU to stop Russian aggression and remove that obstacle.
Ukraine belongs in NATO and the EU. A referendum asking Ukrainians if they want to join NATO and the EU is democratic, noble, and wise policy.