Dutch govt narrowly beats call to scrap EU-Kiev deal

The Hague (AFP) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's ruling coalition Tuesday narrowly defeated a motion calling for the country to immediately pull out of an EU-Ukraine deal rejected by voters in a referendum this month.

Some 75 Dutch lawmakers voted against the motion brought by the eurosceptic Socialist Party with 71 in favour in the 150-seat lower house.

The party had wanted the Netherlands to immediately withdraw from the association agreement which aims to forge closer ties between Brussels and Kiev.

On April 6 more than 4.1 million people, accounting for about 32 percent of some 12.8 million eligible voters, cast their ballots in a non-binding referendum with 61 percent spurning the pact with Kiev.

The result was hailed by eurosceptics across the continent as well as in Russia as a blow to European unity, ahead of a British referendum in June on whether to remain in the 28-nation body.

Tuesday's defeat of the motion gives Rutte more breathing space to deal with the political hot potato of negotiating changes to the deal with his EU partners, observers said.

Rutte himself last week pleaded for more time to reach a "solution that will do justice to the referendum," saying his cabinet will aim to give an answer within the next two months ahead of the summer recess.

"If we don't succeed... cabinet will not ratify the agreement," Rutte said during a parliamentary debate last week.

The Netherlands, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, is now the only country in the bloc that still needs to ratify the agreement.

Voters were asked if they supported the EU's association agreement with Ukraine, which aims to foster better trade relations with the war-torn country and former Soviet satellite.

But referendum organisers admitted the non-binding ballot was essentially about pushing a broader anti-EU agenda.

Dutch media reports said Rutte could now possibly argue in Brussels for a clause to be written into the accord, explicitly stating that Ukraine cannot join the EU.

Another option could be to try to split the agreement into its trade and political components with the Dutch keeping the trade section and dumping the political side.

Or Rutte could insist on scrapping a paragraph about closer military cooperation and demand a tougher stance on corruption in Ukraine, newspapers said.