The Hague (AFP) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday defended an EU cooperation deal with Ukraine as vital for European stability only months before a referendum Dutch eurosceptics have forced on the accord.
Rutte warned after talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- on his first visit to the Netherlands -- that Kiev still had to work hard to become "a fully fledged democracy free of corruption and with prosperity for all".
But it was "in the EU's interests to have a strong and stable neighbour on its eastern border," Rutte insisted. "A neighbour that can provide resistance to the attempts to destabilise the region."
The 2014 association agreement fosters deeper cooperation between Brussels and Kiev, and nudges the former Soviet bloc nation towards eventual EU membership.
But a citizens' campaign in the Netherlands spearheaded by three strongly eurosceptic groups garnered more than the 300,000 signatures needed to trigger a non-binding referendum on the deal.
The association accord is due to go into effect from January 1, and the Dutch government has set a date for the referendum on April 6.
Poroshenko hailed the deal as the start of a new era for Ukraine.
It was "the last farewell to the Soviet Union. The last farewell to the communists. The rubicon that we should cross, who is against that?" he asked.
And the Ukrainian leader insisted that "98 percent of this association agreement is about reform, about defending human rights, defending freedom, defending democracy.
"And I just want to know who is against democracy? Who is against freedom? Who is against reform?"
Russia was incensed by the EU moves to bring Ukraine closer into the European fold.
The tensions spilt over into civil war in eastern Ukraine last year, with Moscow accused of backing pro-Russian separatist rebels and raising the prospect of all-out war on Europe's doorstep.
A shaky ceasefire deal has increasingly been tested in the conflict which has left more than 8,000 people dead.
Rutte said his government was bound by law to hold the referendum, and would afterwards assess the results to see if any change in policy was merited.
Although the results are not binding on the Rutte's Liberal-Labour coalition, the referendum is likely to be closely watched as eurosceptic parties rise in the Dutch polls ahead of elections due in 2017.