Desperately Seeking Approval: Yes side shuns reasoned argument while government ignores referendum law

15 May 2005

Desperately Seeking Approval: Yes side shuns reasoned argument while government ignores referendum law

Opposition to the proposed European Constitution is rising in the Netherlands, where the proportion of those intending to vote 'no' has now grown, according to two polls, to 60%, while the only poll which ever gave the Yes camp a lead has now reversed its forecast. The steady increase and growing likelihood of defeat has shocked the right-wing government of Christian Democrats and Liberals, which in response is playing fast-and-loose with the rules governing referenda, while members of the cabinet make increasingly eccentric and outrageous statements about the Constitution's contents.

An example of the former is that the text of the proposal is not available free of charge in the majority of the country's town halls, a clear requirement of the law. This emerged from a survey by the Socialist Party (SP), which conducted a random survey of twenty-four town halls. In the vast majority of cases only one copy was available for consultation, while a third of the sample did not even have that. Yet according to the law all citizens have the right to pick up a free copy at their town hall at least four weeks before the vote. In a number of cases, SP members were offered a copy of the so-called “Grondwetkrant” – Constitution Paper – a document produced by the government which contains only an expurgated text.

Harry van BommelSP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel, who has raised the matter in a parliamentary question, said “They want to give the impression that the 'Grondwetkrant' contains the whole treaty, but in fact extremely important protocols, annexes and declarations are missing. For instance, the declaration that the ridiculously expensive business of shifting the whole of the European Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg every month will continue is missed out. Apparently the citizens, who foot the bill for this, aren't entitled to know that it's about to be written into a Constitution which can only ever be amended by a unanimous vote of 25 or more member states. That's just one example. The government is ignoring its own law. This is scandalous and must be put to rights without delay.”

The government's reluctance to give people the information they need to take this important decision is perhaps explained by the poll finding that, whereas 60% of those who intend to vote say they are against the proposal, the figure rises to 85% amongst respondents who say they have a 'good knowledge' of the Constitution's contents. Of those who claim to know it 'fairly well', 73% say they will vote no. Only amongst supporters of the two governing right-wing parties is there a majority in favour.

This has caused problems for the largest opposition party, the PvdA (Labour Party). One of Labour's most outspokenly pro-EU MPs, Frans Timmermans, blamed SP leader Jan Marijnissen's warnings about an EU superstate for the Yes side's declining fortunes, though he also pointed to some of the absurdities uttered by government ministers, such as Mr Donner's claim that a rejection of the treaty could lead to war. The possibility that the content of the proposed Constitution might not appeal to people does not seem to have occurred to the leaders of a party which, while it must be congratulated on having supported calls for a referendum, does not apparently understand that this obliges it to take people's views seriously.

Piet Hein Donner is not the only member of the government to prefer meaningless rhetoric to reasoned argument. During George W. Bush's recent visit to the Netherlands, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende noted that “European cooperation has brought us sixty years of peace, progress and security,” before claiming that all of this would be wrecked if the “next important step” were not taken and the Constitution ratified.

It would be unfair, however, to say that the Yes side have entirely abandoned reasoned debate. On the contrary, they have now produced thirty-nine plastic-coated cards giving the thirty-nine “best arguments” in favour of the Constitution. Card 12, to take a typical example, urges a Yes vote on the grounds that “the Netherlands will have the right of veto enabling us to block the EU budget.” That this veto has always existed – the Treaty of Rome demanding unanimous approval of the budget by the member states, as well as the European Parliament – is probably known only to a handful of Dutch citizens.

The Yes campaign, as well as spreading what are effectively bare-faced lies, also appears to have enjoyed a mysterious financial boost. The government has promised that spending would be spread even-handedly, and that a declared financial limit would not be breached unless Parliament gave its express permission. Yet the same government has been able to distribute a clearly loaded summary of the proposal house-to-house, as well as launching a renewed advertising campaign. The Independent Referendum Committee has already produced a summary, but the government says that a new pamphlet is needed because this has not been effectively distributed. The cost of the pamphlet has been estimated at € 1.5 million, and appears to have been paid for by the government, despite no permission having been sought from Parliament.

Commenting on these developments, Harry van Bommel said that “it's clear that the government has run out of ideas and is pulling out the stops to persuade the voters to say Yes. If (foreign minister) Atzo Nicolaï is dipping into the cabinet's war chest without Parliament's agreement it just shows how desperate they are at the prospect of a victory for the No side.”

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