Published on Thursday, June 2, 2005 by the Guardian (UK)
Crushing Defeat Leaves EU Vision in Tatters
by Ian Traynor in The Hague and Nicholas Watt in Brussels
|European leaders' long-held dream of anchoring the continent's greater unification in its first constitution was dissolving before their eyes last night after the Dutch delivered the second crushing blow to the idea in three days.
Given the chance to have their say in their first ever referendum, the Netherlands voted by an overwhelming majority against the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe.
The Dutch rejected the treaty by 61.6% to 38.4% on a high turnout of 62%, according to a tally of almost all the votes.
Both the turnout and the margin of victory for the no camp were substantially higher than opinion polls had predicted.
Following the French rejection of the treaty at the weekend, the second blow from another founding EU member left the European elite reeling and facing the prospect of a protracted period of recrimination, conflict and crisis.
President Jacques Chirac of France said the double negative had laid bare "questions and concerns about the development of the European project". In Germany, the chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, warned that the crisis over the constitution "must not become Europe's general crisis".
Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, said the verdict of French and Dutch voters "raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe".
Although nine of the 25 members have already ratified the treaty, European leaders last night appeared to be inching towards an acceptance that the double no has killed off the constitution. Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, underlined the more nuanced approach when he made no mention of the need to continue with ratification in a statement and late-night press conference.
"It is a difficult moment for Europe," Mr Barroso said, adding that heads of government would decide what to do next at their summit in two weeks. But he warned EU leaders not to abandon the treaty yet. "I think it will not be wise [for] leaders to come with new initiatives or unilateral decisions."
The Dutch revolt against their rulers in The Hague and Brussels was without parallel. For 50 years, the Netherlands has been a stronghold of European integration, home to the Maastricht treaty that produced the most striking instrument of unification - the euro single currency.
As last weekend in France, the no triumph was ascribed to multiple factors all merging into a voters' mutiny.
The three-party centre-right coalition of the Christian democrat prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, is strongly in favour of the constitution. It is also the most unpopular government in living memory.
The Dutch are wary of forfeiting their veto in European policy making. As the biggest per capita net contributors to the Brussels budget, they also feel bullied by the bigger countries and let down by the single currency, seen to have brought steep price rises while the currency's rulebook has been flouted with impunity by Germany and France. The economy is stagnant and unemployment has risen to 7%.
Growing anti-Muslim sentiment, opposition to EU membership for Turkey, and fears over losing control of immigration policy all contributed to the debacle for the pro-European camp, producing a surly and hostile electorate. The no camp was helped rather than hindered by a hapless government pro campaign which was late in getting off the ground and appeared to take the electorate for granted.
Mr Balkenende said he was "very disappointed" but promised to respect the outcome.
"A no is a no," he stated, but added that the ratification process for the con stitution "can continue" in the 14 member states still to state their views.
For Europe as a whole, the next weeks and months, coinciding with the British assumption of the EU presidency, seem likely to produce bitter clashes on everything from Turkish accession and enlargement to budget agreements and economic policy. There is also the question of what can be salvaged from the constitution, which took two years to be agreed.
In a sign of the changed atmosphere in Brussels, the leader of the Socialist group in the European parliament backed away from his strident calls for ratification to continue. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the president of the Party of European Socialists, said: "It is now up to the European heads of government to come forward with a proposal for tack ling the institutional issues which the constitution is intended to resolve. The future of the constitution must be clarified."
Tony Blair is confident fellow European leaders will eventually accept it is impossible to soldier on after such emphatic rejection by France and the Netherlands. But he accepts it may take time for Mr Chirac to concede that the constitution is dead.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.