01/06/2005 - D-7
The uncertainty in the Netherlands about the result of the referendum on the European Constitution that will take place on Wednesday 1st June is as great as in France. Although all the polls undertaken over the last three weeks say that the "NO" vote will win a great number of interviewees are still undecided. More than 40% of the Dutch say they will go to ballot on 1st June, a level of mobilisation that is almost equal to that recorded during the European elections on 10th June 2004 when four out of ten on the electoral rolls turned out (39,3%) to their citizens' duty. The Dutch referendum is consultative but the government has said that it would accept the result if the participation rate was at least 30% and if the result was "unambiguous" i.e. if the "YES" or the "NO" votes rallied at least 60% of the vote. On 20th May last Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende refused to speak about the post-referendum period. "There will be a debate in Parliament and a decision will be made after the consultative referendum," he declared.
According to the latest poll undertaken amongst 600 people by Interview-NSS and published on 20th May, 37% of the Dutch would vote in favour of the Constitution against 63% who would vote "NO". Another opinion poll published the same day and undertaken amongst 2500 people by the Maurice de Hond Institute reveals that amongst voters who had made their choice 40% would vote in favour of the ratification versus 60% who would vote against it. In an opinion poll published on 19th May undertaken amongst 1338 people by Center Data the survey also forecast victory by the "NO" vote; half of those who are about the reject the Constitution (55.5%) justify their negative vote by their wish to oppose the euro and demonstrate their discontent about the rise in prices that followed the introduction of the single currency.
Just a few weeks ago a scandal irrupted in the Netherlands about the introduction in 2002 of the euro in place of the florin, the former national currency. On 30th April last the director of the Dutch Bank, Henk Brouwer admitted that the florin had been undervalued by 5 to 10% on the introduction of the euro into the kingdom – a declaration that was confirmed by the Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm (VVD). "People feel they were diddled. They have never been consulted about Europe and they feel cheated about a certain amount of issues, including the euro," said Harry van Bommel, a Socialist Party MP (SP).
Since half of the electorate are going to vote "NO" (52.3%) and stress their desire to oppose Turkey's entry into the European Union. "The Constitution was written in order to meet the requirements of the Enlargement, therefore Turkey's membership," declares Eimert van Middelkoop, Christian Union MP (CU). "When that day comes a Turkish vote will have more influence than that of a Dutchman," added populist leader Geert Wilders, former member of the Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy, who founded his own party – the Geert Wilders Group- in September 2004.
In addition to this an opinion poll published on 18th May revealed that the government led by Jan Peter Balkenende (CDA) rallying the Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA), the Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Democrats 66 (D'66), are beating all unpopularity records. Less than one Dutchman in 10 (19%) says that they are satisfied with the government coalition's policies. Although this poll was not about the European Constitution it does not comprise a positive point for the "YES" camp that, apart from the three parties in the government coalition, rallies the two opposition parties, the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Green Left (GL). On 8th May last the Prime Minister pointed out that a negative vote would in no way lead to his resignation.
There are many politicians who fear that the Dutch will use the referendum on 1st June to express a more general type of discontent with the entire political world. "It is our own fault, the elite has forgotten and neglected to involve the population in the European project. The mistrust between the politicians and the population has sent in," emphasised Frans Timmermans, the Labour Party spokesman for European Affairs.
In the face of this situation the Secretary of State for European Affairs Atzo Nicolaï, did not hesitate in adopting an extension of 3.5 million euros to finance the distribution of brochures and TV ads in the media in favour of the Constitution. The parties against the ratification of the treaty – the Socialist Party (SP), the Christian Union (Christen Unie), the Reformed Political Party (SGP) and the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF)- challenged this extra spending on the part of the "YES" camp since they were only able to have 400,000 euros in allocation from the referendum commission.
Political leaders from all parties have taken action to refocus the debate on Europe and to explain the text. After a lukewarm start to the campaign the Prime Minister asked all of his government members to launch themselves into battle. But this has been a campaign that according to a poll by the Maurice de Hond Institute, 59% of the Dutch believes to have been counter-productive. On 20th May and for the first time since the start of the campaign Jan Peter Balkenende and two of his deputy Prime Ministers (D'66), defended the Constitution in a TV programme dedicated to the referendum.
Finance Minister, Gerrit Zalm, embraced the theme of the budget, a sensitive subject amongst the Dutch who contribute the most per inhabitant to the European Union. He emphasised that with the Constitution the Netherlands had a "decisive vote on expenditure by Brussels and on the Dutch contribution. The Constitution establishes that we may stick to this until we find a solution to our net contribution which is too high (...) For a country like the Netherlands this is one of the main advantages of the new European Constitution," he concluded.
For his part Ben Bot (CDA) Foreign Affairs Minister, warned of the negative consequences of a "NO" vote on the country's economic situation. "70 to 80% of our import/export goes via the European Union," he pointed out. "Those who reject the European Constitution will be saying "NO" to something that is better than what we have. Those who vote "YES" will vote for a stronger Netherlands in a stronger Europe," he declared.
As for the opposition the leader of the Labour Party, Wouter Bos appealed for a vote in favour of the Constitution with which "Europe will become more social, safer, more dynamic and more democratic." The Social Democrat leader did however maintain that convincing his countrymen to vote "YES" would be "hard work". "People associate the European Union with the expensive euro, enormous agricultural subsidies, the money wasted by the European Parliament and the wrong done to the Third World. They see Europe interfering with everything and ask whether the Netherlands will remain the Netherlands," he declared. In his opinion by limiting Brussels' interference the Constitution will serve Dutch interests better than the Nice Treaty.
Company heads have also entered the electoral battle. Both employers' federations, the VNO-NCW, who represent more than 115,000 companies and MKB Nederland are campaigning for the "YES" vote insisting on the advantages that Europe has given to the Netherlands since the 1950's. "Between 1992 and 2002 the internal market has led to the creation of 2.5 million jobs," maintains Jacques Schraven, chairman of the VNO-NCW. "By saying "NO" to the Constitution we would seriously be burning our fingers. Not only would we be slowing down vital improvements but we would also lose our advantageous position in Brussels. The Netherlands' image would suffer a serious blow," he declared. A more efficient decision making process, the maintenance by the Netherlands of their right to veto the European budget and the increased role played by the Member States in the decision making process comprise three vital reasons to vote in favour of the text according to Loek Hermans, chairman of the MKB-Nederland. Both employers' organisations have printed and distributed brochures and are broadcasting ads on the radio in which company heads take a stance on the Constitution.
Amongst those in the camp against the text, Geert Wilders is travelling the country on a bus bearing the slogan "The Netherlands must withstand" repeating that with the Constitution the Dutch will no longer be in control of their country. "The Netherlands are not for sale and will not be castrated. The Netherlands must remain independent. The European Constitution must be rejected with force," writes the populist leader. On the extreme left Socialist Party militants for their part emphasise the Enlargement presenting a poster in which Europe extends right to Russia. In their eyes the European Constitution must be fought because it will establish a "super State" that threatens Dutch identity. Finally in the country's leading daily newspaper, Elsevier, that has declared itself in favour of the "NO" vote, editorialist Syp Winia warns readers by writing , "with this treaty will shall lose the means to control and organise our immigration and we shall be offering all of the other Europeans right of access to our social system which is the most generous in the world."
In answer to those against the treaty on the specific issue of identity the Prime Minister declared, "the Constitution does not threaten but strengthens our identity. What is dearest to us, our values, our freedom, our rights, our culture and our traditions will be better protected by this text (...) Our national identity and our constitutional structure are explicitly respected in the text. With this Constitution the Netherlands is not laying itself open to Europe. On the contrary we shall have more influence on Europe. Subjects such as soft drugs, euthanasia and abortion are national competences, nothing is dictated to us by Brussels," Jan Peter Balkenende said reassuringly.
The campaign for the referendum on the Constitution reveals the fears of a great majority of the Dutch, a population of traders who have always been open to the rest of the world. Although economic Europe and the great market no longer frighten the kingdom's inhabitants it is a different matter as far as the Constitution of political Europe is concerned where they perceive a threat to their identity. The Dutch, who consider themselves to be a "small" State fear the growing influence of the bigger countries such as France or Germany who they accuse of going unpunished for their "infringements" of the Stability Pact for example. "A President elected for two and a half years would turn to the big Member States since their votes would be enough to be re-elected," declared André Rouvoet, leader of the Christian Union parliamentary group.
Finally the fear of uncontrolled immigration just as Turkey's possible accession are strong in a country that was traumatised by the assassination of the extreme rightwing leader Pim Fortuyn leader on 6th May 2002 and that of , of the film maker Theo van Gogh on 2nd November 2004 who was stabbed by a young Muslim for having mentioned the violence undertaken against Muslim women. The populist leader, who denounced an immigration level he believed to be excessive and dangerous – "The Netherlands are full" was his slogan, was in 2002 the one who revealed the gulf between the elites and the greater part of the population. Three years later this schism is still present and the Dutch seem to want to use the referendum on the European Constitution to express their disquiet in the face of the threats to their model of consensus and openness. A symbol of this disquiet is that for the very first time since the 1950's the kingdom is experiencing a wave of emigration towards distant countries such as Canada and Australia.
Just a week before the election and in spite of the results of the latest polls the Prime Minister said he was "optimistic" about the positive results of the first popular consultation organised in the kingdom since 1797. There is no doubt that the result of the French referendum that will take place three days before that of the Netherlands will influence the Dutch vote. It is impossible to say however which way it might tip the balance. "If France votes "YES" there might still be a chance for the Netherlands to follow suit," declared Luuk van Middlelaar, political adviser in Parliament to the head of the Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy.