The Hague: Dutch voters Wednesday rejected a key European pact with Ukraine in a people`s referendum seen as a barometer of anti-EU feeling, media predictions said, dealing an embarrassing blow to the government.
In a result swiftly hailed by eurosceptic groups, the Dutch news agency ANP said that with 99.8 percent of the votes counted the "No" camp had won the day with 61.1 percent. Only 38 percent voted in favour of the two-year-old treaty with Kiev.
After initial doubts, ANP also projected that 32.2 percent of the electorate had turned out, meaning the ballot is valid and must be considered by the coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
"It looks like the Dutch people said NO to the European elite and NO to the treaty with the Ukraine. The beginning of the end of the EU," far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders crowed late Wednesday.
Voters were asked if they supported the European Union`s association agreement with Ukraine, which aims to foster better trade relations with the war-torn country and former Soviet satellite.
But organisers admitted the non-binding ballot was essentially about pushing a broader anti-EU agenda -- humiliating at the very time that the Netherlands holds the rotating EU presidency.
The vote was being closely watched by Europe and Moscow, and could prove an important yardstick only months ahead of Britain`s "Brexit" referendum in June.The Dutch "No" may pose a major headache for the European Union as it also gears up for the ramifications of a possible British exit from the bloc.
The Netherlands is now the only member in the 28-nation EU not to have ratified the Ukraine accord which has already been given the thumbs up by both the upper and lower houses of the Dutch parliament.
Rutte agreed "the `no` camp won convincingly".
And he was forced to concede that "if the turnout is above the (30 percent) margin then this accord cannot be ratified as is."
He had earlier urged voters to vote in favour of the pact with Kiev saying "we have to help Ukraine build up a judicial state and its democracy."
"Europe needs more stability at its edges."
It remains unclear what will happen next, with Rutte vowing a "step-by-step" approach in full consultation with the government and Brussels. Official full results are only due on April 12.
The vote is non-binding. But it could mean that the coalition government -- already under fire due to the refugee crisis -- will seek to opt out of certain provisions of the EU-Ukraine deal to satisfy the voters.
It could also boost Wilders`s Freedom Party (PVV) which is already riding high in the polls due to his stand against migrants.The leaders of the Netherlands` six largest parties all agreed Wednesday the country could not just ratify the agreement with Ukraine.
"The accord cannot just be ratified. We have to take into account this `no` vote," said Diederik Samsom, the Labour Party leader which is Rutte`s junior ruling coalition partner.
The "No" camp had highlighted concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and continuing separatist unrest in the east, among reasons to refuse closer ties with Kiev.
Ukraine, where a Moscow-backed president who rejected the cooperation deal was ousted in 2014, had actively campaigned for a "yes" vote
But the message appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.
"I voted against because I don`t think the accord is a good thing for the Netherlands," said Nik Tam, 65, adding there were already "too many" countries in the EU.
Leave EU, one of the main pro-Brexit campaigns, swiftly lay down the gauntlet to EU supporters.
"Nobody could accuse the Dutch of not being good Europeans, but they have no willingness to open their borders to more migrants and pick up the tab for Ukraine`s problems, just like most UK voters," said Leave.EU spokesman Brian Monteith.
The vote was a signal to the British to follow suit, he said, adding: "The sun is now setting on the European Union."