EU Constitution: All eyes on the Dutch

The Dutch voted on Wednesday in their first national referendum, choosing whether to accept a proposed European Union Constitution.

Opinion polls indicated The Netherlands could join France in rejecting the historic document.

Pollsters predicted that nearly 60% will say no—a rejection that, following France’s firm no on Sunday, will leave Europe’s leaders without a clear back-up plan for the charter, which needs approval from all 25 EU nations to take effect in late 2006.

Nine countries have ratified the Constitution, either by referendum or parliamentary vote. France was the first to reject it, and some analysts said the Gallic no could embolden Dutch voters who had wanted to avoid the stigma of casting a lone veto.

Voting booths opened at 7.30am local time and were to close at 9pm, with the first results within half an hour and a final tally two hours later. The referendum is non-binding, but Dutch leaders have pledged to accept it as long as the result is clear and turnout is above 30%.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende voted at his local station in Capelle aan den Ijssel, near Rotterdam, quipping to reporters and photographers: “You did note correctly that that was a yes vote, right?”

He had issued a last-minute plea for a yes vote on Tuesday night, telling TV: “Let’s hope that when they’re in the voting booth, people think about all the people that say this Constitution would be a positive development.”

Supporters of the Constitution—including both Balkenende’s conservative government and the main opposition Labour Party—say it will streamline decision-making in the EU and give Europe more sway in international affairs by create a single foreign minister to represent the bloc.

“I think it’s a good thing if there’s a strong Europe,” Jaena Padberg, an early yes-voter, said on Wednesday outside a busy voting station at a community school in Amsterdam.
“It’s good that our rights will be secured.”

But opponents fear that The Netherlands, a nation of just 16-million people, will be engulfed by a superstate headquartered in Brussels and dominated by Germany, France and Britain. It could mean the end of liberal Dutch policies such as tolerating marijuana use, prostitution and euthanasia, they say.

Still other voters said they cast no ballots to voice their discontent with the Dutch government and register their anger over the rise in prices following the introduction of the euro in 2002.

Others fear Turkey will soon be admitted to the union, worsening tensions between Dutch Muslims and the non-Muslim majority.

“In other countries that are going to join, human rights are not as well protected as they are here,” said no-voter Mika Gruschke.

“Things are going too fast,” said Maarten Pijnenburg, in the no camp. “There’s not enough control over the power of European politicians” under the new Constitution, he said.

Jort Kelder, editor of the Dutch glossy business and style magazine Quote, said politicians are reaping what they have sown.

“People see that they were bamboozled” by the price rises after the introduction of the euro, he said. A no vote “will be a success for democracy but a drama for the Constitution”, he said on the TV program Nova late on Tuesday.

The Dutch outcome is not expected to have the same dramatic result for domestic politicians as France’s vote—a loss that was a public humiliation for French President Jacques Chirac and resulted in Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s resignation as prime minister. A Dutch no will not mean any political resignations, Balkenende has said.

Even if the Dutch say no, EU leaders meeting in Brussels in mid-June are unlikely to pronounce the treaty dead, said Aurore Wanlin, an analyst with the London-based Centre for European

Reform.

But “when two member founding states vote no, it looks like a big crisis”.

Peter Kanne, of the TNS Nipo polling agency, said the French outcome “won’t be a decisive factor” on Dutch turnout.

“Mainly, people will do what they intended to do anyway,” he said. TNS predicted 59% of Dutch will vote no, even higher than the 55% in France.

Turnout was expected to be far below the 70% in France, and several Dutch walking past voting stations in Amsterdam said they wouldn’t vote.

“I don’t understand the contents of the Constitution and I promise you, I’m not the only one,” said Mohammed Sali.

“We have enough laws in this country already,” said Maarten Kriz. “We already have a Dutch Constitution. Why should we vote for another one?”—Sapa-AP

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