BRUSSELS – It once seemed a quaint formality, but the Netherlands' referendum vote on a European Union free-trade deal with Ukraine produced a raised middle finger to the EU — and yet another serious challenge to the European dream.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the EU's executive Commission, had warned ahead of Wednesday's poll that a rejection of the deal "would open the door to a great continental crisis." Such is the EU's standing these days, however, that its warnings are not only disregarded but seen as a provocation.
The "great continental crisis" may not be imminent just yet, but with a British referendum on whether to leave the EU looming in June, the 28-nation bloc's future looks ever bleaker.
"The president is sad," said Juncker's spokesman, Margaritis Schinas.
"He will continue to do battle for Europe," Schinas said, adding that "if he would be left the only one to do it, he would do so."
While the EU was a bandwagon everybody wanted to join two decades ago, it is indeed getting lonely at the top now.
Even to the political groups that forced the Dutch referendum, it was never going to be so much about the finer points of trading with Ukraine. Under Dutch law, it gave them the best chance to snub their nose at "Brussels" — increasingly used as a negative term for the home of EU institutions and their continent-wide policies, which critics see as interfering with national life.
Final results released Thursday showed 61.1 percent rejected the EU-Ukraine deal, which was backed by the Dutch government and the EU leaders. Turnout was low, but just enough to make the vote valid.
"That is a vote of no confidence by the people against the elite from Brussels," said right-wing fireband Geert Wilders, who has directed his venom against the EU as much as against the national government.
The Netherlands already rejected a proposed EU constitution in a 2005 referendum, and that proved a tipping point for the fortunes of the bloc. Since then, it has stumbled from one crisis to the next, including financial woes in several member nations that raised questions over the future of its common currency, and open disagreements on how to deal with the influx of migrants.
EU governments do compromise to get agreements, but if such deals get put to votes, electorates throughout much of the bloc tend to reject them. France and Ireland also have rejected deals over recent years.
"It again proves there is huge skepticism about what the EU is up to," said EU expert Hendrik Vos of Ghent University. "You see this populism ever more. Frist in Britain, and now much more across the EU, and it has led to this fundamental distrust."
Wednesday's result was grist to the mill of Euroskeptics in Britain who want their country to vote to leave the EU altogether in a June 23 referendum.
"This result gives the British people the signal that it is moderate and normal to reject the EU and stand up for what's in our country's best interests," said Brian Monteith, a spokesman for Britain's Leave.EU campaign. "The sun is now setting on the European Union."
The Dutch result also delivered a political victory to Moscow, whether or not voters intended that. Ukraine's westward turn was at the core of Moscow's displeasure with Kiev and at the heart of the events that culminated in Russia's annexation of Crimea, followed by fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Twitter that the results "indicate Europeans' opinion of the Ukrainian political system." President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Dutch voters were "signaling their distrust" of the EU-Ukraine association agreement.
Vladimir Frolov, a foreign affairs analyst in Moscow, said that the result was "confirming the official Russian narrative that Ukraine does not belong in Europe and its future is destined to be always with Russia."
"It certainly creates a public relations boost to the Russian official line," Frolov said.
In Ukraine, the mood was glum and many people were angry and upset with President Petro Poroshenko. "This is a blow to the basic and loudest promises made by Poroshenko, who promised a visa-free regime with the EU any day now," political analyst Vadim Karasev said.
The EU will still need to find a way to deal with the outcome. Since the Dutch referendum was non-binding, EU leaders were already looking at a way to save a much of the agreement as possible, likely through the intricate political brokering that has alienated so many Europeans.
"The Dutch will find a solution, we need to give it time," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "In the same way we handle other difficult subjects, we will find a way."
The damage was already visible on Thursday, though.
"I feel cheated and abandoned by Europe," said Anton Kononenko, a 56-year-old teacher in Kiev. "We are being pushed back into the arms of Russia."
Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Yuras Karmanau from Kiev