01/06/2005 - Analysis
On June 1st, just three days after the French, the Dutch will be voting by referendum on the European Constitution. They will have to answer the following question: "Are you for or against the Netherlands approving the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe?" This popular consultation will be the first in the Batavian kingdom in over 200 years; the last one took place in August 1797. A great majority of voters had already rejected the draft Constitution presented to them for the Netherlands. The government wanted the referendum - the idea for which originated in Parliament but which the government committed itself to supporting – to take place before the mid-June European Summit that will be focussing on the future European budget. Since the Netherlands contribute most per inhabitant to the Union budget the government feared that this summit might affect the election's result negatively.
The referendum on 1st June is simply consultative but parties comprising the government coalition – Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Party of Democrats 66 (D'66)- have said that they will adopt the result under two conditions : that the participation rate reaches at least 30% and that the result is "unambiguous", i.e. that the ‘yes' or ‘no' votes rally at least 60% of the votes. When interviewed about whether he linked his own political future to the referendum or not Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister answered quite clearly "certainly not".
The stance adopted by the political parties
All of the parties in government – the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Party of Democrats 66 (D'66), at present members of the government coalition, the Labour Party (PvdA), the main opposition party and the Green Left (GL)- are in favour of the ratification of the Constitution and are calling the population to vote "yes" in the referendum on 1st June. We should however point out that there is a great divide between the two leftwing parties, the Labour Party and the Green Left. In the latter party around 40% of its members are against the line adopted by their party and tend towards saying "no" to the Constitution.
Six "smaller" parties are against the ratification of the European text. These are the Protestant parties – the Reformed Political Party (SGP) and the Christian Union (ChristenUnie)- who lament the lack of religious references in the text; the extremist parties -the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) and Leefbaar Nederland – whose report to the European Union is always ambiguous and might even be considered hostile; the Geert Wilders Group, a party founded in September 2004 and finally the Socialist Party (PS) are both anti-European. The spokesman for the Socialist Party, Jan Marijnissen expressed the reasons for his party's opposition to the ratification of the treaty: "Now that the process of economic unity is almost finished, the European elite is preparing itself to undertake the political federalisation of Europe. The European Constitution, a curious mixture of generous, empty slogans, of old treaty texts and political programmes comprises the first major step towards federal Europe. Within this future federation the major countries, and this is goes without saying, will dominate. The respective influence of our country will be reduced to 3% of the vote, which is even less than the Friesian delegation in the First Chamber. We shall become a powerless province."
Grontwet nee (Constitution no) has emerged in time for the referendum rallying alongside the Socialist Party around twenty organisations who for the most part are linked to the Anti-Globalisation movement. In addition to these and under the guidance of the Edmund Burke Foundation, fourteen politicians, journalists and intellectuals from all political walks of life – including Anton van Schijndel (VVD), Harrie Verbon (CDA), Eimert van Middlekoop (ChristenUnie), Mat Herben (LPF), André Rouvoet (ChristenUnie), Geert Wilders (Groupe Wilders), Paul Bordewijk (PvdA) and Syp Wynia (from the daily newspaper Elsevier) - came together to oppose the ratification of the European Constitution. They are the source of the publication of a collective document entitled: Weak together, appeal against the European Constitution.
Public Debate and the Electoral Campaign
Just one month before the referendum the debate is focussing mainly on the issue of possible transferral of Netherlands' competence over to the European Union that might ensue after approval of the Constitution. Those in favour of the text are promoting the improvements in the running of the Union brought by the text, the advantages that the Netherlands draw from belonging to the European Union and finally the crisis that will ensue if the text is rejected. The cost the Union represents for the Netherlands comprises one of the most frequently mentioned arguments put forward by the opponents to the European Constitution. Amongst reasons of voters who say they are against the Constitution also feature the rejection of any future accession by Turkey; this rejection also includes their discontent about the most recent enlargement.
In an open letter published on 28th April by the Netherlands leading daily newspaper, De Telegraaf Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende listed the reasons why "the Netherlands must vote in favour of the European Constitution on 1st June (...) because the Constitution makes the fight against terrorism, environmental pollution and political asylum more efficient. The Netherlands, as a trading country, needs, more than any other, an open European economy. Because citizens want to reduce interference by Brussels, this text provides them with an opportunity to do so; it is the first European treaty that offers this. And because we must make safe the enormous advantage we have drawn from sixty years of peace," – these are the arguments put forward by Jan Peter Balkenende. "The European Union works", maintains the Prime Minister admitting however that there is still much to be done in terms of "listening, openness, and efficiency," - points on which the "Constitution specifically provides improvements". He tries to reassure the electorate who might be frightened by any possible dilution of Dutch identity within Europe. "The Constitution stipulates that national identity must be respected, it defines the limits of the Union's competence", he writes before protesting against certain statements that have been relayed by the text's opponents such as the easy entry of Turkey into the Union. "Opponents offer no perspective of a better Europe," he concludes.
Foreign Affairs Ministers, Bernard Bot (CDA), contested some campaign arguments used by some members of his party that he wished to tone down by emphasising the need to lead a "positive campaign." "The more people are informed the more they will vote "yes". People aren't stupid, they know what is at stake and they will vote "yes"," he declared. The Minister was echoing Justice Minister, Piet Hein Donner who had declared, "if you want to endanger the future you must definitely vote "no" to the referendum. A repetition of the scenario that plunged Yugoslavia into a state of war would then be possible. Without a European Constitution irritation and mistrust between EU countries will grow."
For his part the president of the parliamentary group of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, Jozias van Aartsen, put forward the following argument: "the immense step forwards that the European Constitution represents for Dutch employment, national security and our identity (...) the Netherlands has an open economy, we earn our money by trade and transport.. The internal European market, established within the Constitution and placed under constant surveillance by the European Commission generates prosperity and hundreds of thousands of jobs in our country," he declared.
Finally the president of the parliamentary group for Christian Democratic Appeal, Maxime Verhagen, asked Wouter Bos, president of the Labour Party group, Jozias van Aartsen of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, Boris Dittrich of the Party of Democrats 66 and Femke Halsema of the Green Left to gather together to appear on a poster calling the population to vote "yes" to the European Constitution. Maxime Verhagen believes that "the fight for the "yes" vote goes beyond the frontiers of political allegiances," and has called upon his colleagues to "conciliate what appears to be irreconcilable."
The referendum commission has a 400,000 euro subsidy to fight in favour of the constitution, and the same amount for the « no » vote and 200,000 euro for "neutral" projects linked to the referendum. However although adversaries of the Constitution have launched a major campaign the government can delve into the "war coffers" that hold one and a half million euros. "If we need to use major sums then the government cannot have its hands tied," emphasised the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Atzo Nicolai.
In the Netherlands the various organisations from civil society are, in the main, in favour of the ratification of the European text. Company leaders and the union movements are also in favour of the "yes" vote, although officially these organisations never advise the public on how to vote. "As the FNV we are only making declarations about areas we know about and about which we are informed. As a result as far as the EU's foreign policy is concerned we cannot form an opinion or give voting advice but we do however express ourselves in socio-economic areas and we believe that the Constitution comprises a step forwards in comparison with the Nice Treaty," emphasised Lodewijk de Waal, president of Dutch Federation of Unions (FNV), the most powerful union organisation in the country (the FNV rallies fourteen unions and over 1.2 million members). In a joint declaration that can be see on Internet management and union organisations stress that the European Constitution is a "step forwards because its brings us closer to social Europe, comprising progress in the areas of democracy, social dialogue and social market economy." Social partners think it a positive point that the text increases "the competence and participation of the European Parliament, for example in the area of social security and migrant workers."
The government has asked around one hundred organisations (churches, teachers' associations, car drivers etc) to support the campaign in favour of the "yes" vote to the European Constitution. An Internet site has been opened (www.grondweteu.nl) on which the public can read an on-line diary written by the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Atzo Nicolai. "As a medium sized country, that is strategically well situated with an open economy we take advantage of a strong Europe like no other country can. The Netherlands are totally in the EU, we know it well and we have both old and new friends there. Thanks to Europe the Netherlands can achieve better results on an economic level and make their voice heard," he writes.
The most recent opinion poll undertaken amongst 2,200 individuals by Maurice de Hond for the state TV channel NOS and published on 23rd April last revealed that for the first time that those who said they were going to vote on June 1st (32%), a majority (52%) said they were going to vote no to the referendum 48% said they were in favour of the ratification of the European Constitution. A second survey undertaken on 24th April by the Institute for State and Private (IPP) also indicated that a majority of interviewees (58, 2%) were about to vote "no", versus 41.8% who would vote in favour. We should indicate that this survey undertaken amongst 7, 5000 internet users who visited the site www.referendumwijzer.nl, is not really representative of the Dutch population. Finally on 29th April the political programme Nova, broadcast by state TV, revealed another survey undertaken amongst 600 individuals showing that 37% of those interviewed said they were going to vote on June 1st. Amongst these 32% said they would vote "no", 30% said they would vote in favour and 30% were still undecided.
The result of the French referendum will certainly be of major importance in the Netherlands just as the campaign and debates on-going in France will undoubtedly influence the Dutch campaign. We must admit that although just a few polls have been undertaken to date, as the referendum date approaches support for the Constitution is waning. "We are not worried as we still have time and room to convince notably the great number of those who are undecided," maintained Jan Jacob van Dijk, spokesperson for the Christian Democratic Appeal in favour of the European Constitution. For his part the Prime Minister decided last week to listen to those who have accused him of being immobile and to commit himself more actively to the campaign; he said that he was convinced that a strong campaign would enable him to win the referendum. The official campaign will start on 14th May next.