European Constitution? No thanks!

18 April 2005

European Constitution? No thanks!

Before you say 'yes' to the European Constitution you must understand that, if it is accepted, the Netherlands will become a powerless province, argues leader of the SP and Member of Parliament Jan Marijnissen.

According to opinion polls, only a minority of the Dutch population is aware that a referendum on the European Constitution will take place on June 1st. Even those who do know have in most cases no idea what this proposed Constitution contains. The reason for this is clear: 'Europe' is not a live issue, the European Constitution is an odious and ungainly creature and the political parties which are supposed to be its champions haven't turned up for the joust.

Most people feel a bond to their town or village and to their country. Some make a point of proclaiming themselves citizens of the world – but 'European'?

'Europeanness' is all about the process of European integration which has taken shape over the last few decades, a top-down process directed from behind the scenes. Slice by slice, successive governments have handed to Brussels our rights as a nation. The people have never been asked what they think of this and European questions have never played a role in national elections. The Brussels Eurocrats can tell us how important they are, but a great majority of the Dutch people aren't listening. In general, this is also true of the media. With a few exceptions, what comes out of Brussels is in the main dull and depressing.

Now that the process of economic integration is as good as finished, Europe's elite is getting down to some serious work on the task of political federalisation. The European Constitution, a remarkable mishmash of generalisations, meaningless slogans, bits of old treaties and a political programme, forms the first important step on the road to a federal Europe within which, self-evidently, big countries will be dominant. Our country will be reduced to wielding 3 per cent of the votes, even fewer than Friesland controls in our own Senate. We will become a powerless province.

Although it is to be welcomed that the Dutch people will have the chance to express their views on this important European development – which was unfortunately not the case when we adopted the euro – it has to be said that the idea of holding a referendum over the question of a complicated and deadly dull book of fully 482 pages is somewhat bizarre. Insofar as there has been any discussion of this tome at all, it tends to take the form of a confusing run through all of its different aspects: legislative processes, institutional competences, the relationship between the text and policy formation, and whether the Constitution can in the future be amended. Whenever specialists in constitutional law or other experts get launched on such questions, most people decide that the best thing for it is to leave them to it.

Another reason why a real public debate has failed to get off the ground is that the Constitution's supporters are frightened of it. The polls show that even in our country, which has always been pro-European, the result is no foregone conclusion. Because of this, the major players of Dutch politics have little enthusiasm for active campaigning. In contrast to the euro-celebrities wheeled out by D66* and GroenLinks (Green Left), the leaders of the CDA (Christian Democrats), the VVD (right-wing liberals) and the PvdA (Labour Party) are ill-inclined to put their political future in the balance by embracing the Constitution. They'd rather let the cabinet do their dirty work for them. So the government is forced to do the splits – because on the one hand it's responsible for the organisation of the referendum (by means of which the people, and not the government, have to take a decision) and on the other hand it has to play the most important role in the 'Yes' campaign. The cabinet really shouldn't be playing such a double role, a role which gives it the power to make a million euros available to social organisations on both sides of the debate, but also to control a warchest, for the exclusive use of the 'yes' campaign, of 1.5 million euros. This doesn't look at all good.

For anyone who hasn't read the Constitution and can't be bothered to follow the debate, let me just say one thing: this Constitution comes from the same team that gave us the Stability Pact and the euro.

This article first appeared in NRC Handelsblad, 18 April 2005

* The less right-wing, smaller and more pro-EU of the two Liberal parties, similar to Britain's Liberal Democrats

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