The Hague (AFP) - European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker urged Dutch voters Saturday not to oppose an EU cooperation deal with Ukraine, saying such a move "could open the doors to a continental crisis".
A citizens' campaign in the Netherlands spearheaded by three strongly eurosceptic groups garnered more than 300,000 votes needed to trigger a non-binding referendum on the deal, three months from now.
Observers said the vote, set for April 6, pointed more towards broader euroscepticism among the Dutch than actual opposition to the trade deal with Kiev, which fosters deeper cooperation with Brussels.
A Dutch 'no' "could open the doors to a continental crisis," Juncker told the authoritative NRC daily newspaper in an interview published on Saturday.
"Let's not change the referendum into a vote about Europe," Juncker urged Dutch voters, adding: "I sincerely hope that (the Dutch) won't vote no for reasons that have nothing to do with the treaty itself."
Should Dutch voters oppose the deal, Russia "stood to benefit most," he said.
The 2014 association agreement provisionally came into effect on January 1 and nudges the former Soviet bloc nation towards eventual EU membership.
On a visit to the Netherlands in November, Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko hailed the deal as the start of a new era for the Ukraine.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has 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 Rutte's Liberal-Labour coalition, the referendum is likely to be closely watched as eurosceptic parties -- including that of far-right politician Geert Wilders -- rise in the Dutch polls ahead of elections due in 2017.
Russia has been incensed by the EU's move to bring Ukraine closer to the European fold.
The tensions spilt over into civil war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, with Moscow accused of backing pro-Russian separatist rebels and raising the prospect of all-out war on Europe's doorstep.
The conflict has left more than 9,000 dead since April 2014.