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EU to propose visa-free travel for Ukraine despite Dutch vote: source

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission will propose this month granting visa-free travel to Ukrainians despite a Dutch referendum vote against an EU-Ukraine agreement partly motivated by hostility to migration, a senior EU source said.

A woman attends a flash mob to support a European treaty deepening ties with Ukraine on the eve of a referendum held in the Netherlands, in Kiev, Ukraine, in this April 5, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/Files

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in March that the EU executive would put forward the eagerly awaited proposal in April, offering Ukrainians the most tangible benefit of closer ties at a time when a free trade deal has not yet borne fruit for their economy.

“It may look as if we’re ignoring the Dutch voters, but we have to keep our word to Ukraine, which has met the conditions,” the source said.

The proposal must be approved by a qualified majority of EU member states and by the European Parliament to take effect.

The source said the Commission would include some form of safeguard enabling EU countries to reinstate visas temporarily in case of a surge of migration.

Ukraine has a population of some 45 million. Russia’s 2013 annexation of Crimea and the fighting with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has not so far led to a large exodus from the country, EU officials note.

The Dutch voted by 61 percent last week in a non-binding referendum called by Eurosceptics to reject the association agreement on closer political, security and trade ties between Kiev and the 28-nation bloc.

Less than a third of the electorate turned out, but the turnout was just more than the 30 percent required for the result to be valid.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the government could not proceed with ratification of the deal which the other 27 EU countries have already approved, and which has provisionally entered into force. The EU Commission said it was up to Dutch leaders to reflect on the vote and suggest a way forward.

Ukraine is not the only country impatiently awaiting visa-free travel. EU leaders have promised to speed up visa liberalization for Turkey, aiming for agreement by late June if Ankara meets the many conditions. The Commission is also working on a politically sensitive proposal to extend it to Kosovo.

Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Stephen Powell