Why the Dutch said ‘no’ to the EU Constitution

19 July 2005

Why the Dutch said ‘no’ to the EU Constitution

On 1 June, a majority of the Dutch public voted against the European Constitution. More than 60 percent, on a very high turn-out, decided that this Constitution would not represent an improvement. And it was clear that this was a victory brought about by progressive voters.

by Harry van Bommel, Socialist Party MP in the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch Parliament. He has been an MP since 1998 and is the Party's spokesman on foreign and European affairs. He played a leading role in the no campaign during the 2005 Dutch referendum.

Those campaigning against the European Constitution included the LPF (the party of the late Pim Fortuyn), the right-wing politician Geert Wilders, small Christian parties and the Socialist Party (SP). Because the other parties of the left and centre-left, the Labour Party and the greens, were in favour of the Constitution, and because the SP was the largest party of the 'no' side, it was clear from the beginning that this would be a very important campaign for the SP. At the same time, the LPF and Geert Wilders failed to launch a successful campaign. The media was not interested in the LPF and instead focused on Geert Wilders. But because he has no organisation, no experience of campaigning and is still in a fight with the Conservative party he turned his back on, his campaign was a failure.

Although the 'no' side was a very diverse group of parties, this was also true of the 'yes' coalition. The Labour Party and the Greens, both opposition parties, were campaigning side-by-side with the governing conservatives, right wing liberals and a smaller, more centrist, liberal party. It became clear that none of the 'yes' parties were really willing to launch a major campaign, and that each was looking to the Government to do the job. This meant that instead of using party funds, money raised from taxation was being spent on the 'yes' campaign. And at the same time, little money from public funds was available for the 'no' campaign. In the end, the 'yes' campaign spent more than 4 million euros from general taxation, and the 'no' campaign only 400,000 euros. This was the first of many mistakes the 'yes' campaign made, and we took advantage of it. But more mistakes followed. The pro-Constitution side began to use cheap arguments that made our campaign look even more a reasonable alternative. The Minister of Economic Affairs warned that in the event of a 'no' vote the lights would be turned off. The Minister of Justice argued that a 'no' vote could lead to war, referring to the war in the Balkans. The Prime Minister, when commemorating the victims of World War II together with President Bush, linked the Constitution with concentration camps. And members of the European Parliamentary group of the right wing liberals launched a TV commercial, showing images of Auschwitz and mass graves in former Yugoslavia. This led to tensions within the Yes coalition and was a great source of support for the 'no' campaign.

The SP started campaigning in an early stage by communicating our comments on the Constitution through our website. With the help of hundreds of volunteers from our party, we dominated the campaign with progressive arguments against the Constitution. We were able to gain a lot of media attention. We voiced our objections to the Constitution in newspapers, on TV and on the radio. This helped us influence the debate and pushed the supporters of the Constitution on to the defensive. In the end, we were the only party from the 'no' campaign which made serious inroads into the support of the party which might be seen as our 'bigger brother' on the left and which had campaigned for a 'yes', the Labour Party. A majority of the people who had voted for the Labour Party at the last elections voted against the Constitution.

The conclusion that the Dutch 'no' vote was a progressive vote for a different Europe is supported by research conducted by polling institute Interview NSS. According to the research they conducted the day after the referendum, the main reasons for a 'no' vote were that the Dutch contribution to the EU is too high, that the Dutch parliament would lose influence on national policy-making, and that the Netherlands would lose influence in Europe. These are no xenophobic concerns.

The Dutch 'no' was not a vote against European cooperation. Cooperation is useful and necessary in those areas where international cooperation could offer added value. But if cooperation is not necessary, action should be taken on a national level. For years, Dutch politicians were fanatical europhiles, support- ing every initiative leading to 'more Europe'. In fact, more than 80 percent of MPs were in favour of the Constitution. Hopefully, the result of the referendum will work as a wake-up call for these politicians. The Dutch government has already picked up the message from the Dutch public. Recently, Deputy Minister of European Affairs Atzo Nicolaï admitted that "Europe is going too far, too fast, is too expensive and too meddlesome." But not only the institutional aspects of Europe are being discussed. Politicians are also finally discussing the direction of the European project.

A change in attitude towards Europe can also be recognised in the Dutch Parliament. Many parties, including the SP, were supportive of the firm stance of our Prime Minister during the latest meeting of the European heads of state. We support the plea to decrease the net contribution of the Netherlands, and to limit the budget of the EU to 1% of the GDP. The SP is also in favour of reforming the cohesion funds and agricultural funding. The recycling of funds between rich member states should be ended. The principle of cohesion suggests that structural funding should be allocated to member states that need financial resources for the growth of their poor regions. Rich member states can mobilise domestic resources for the development of their underdeveloped regions. Cohesion funds should not be used to lay cycle tracks in the Netherlands, but should be used for poor regions in poor member states. Furthermore, a revision of the Common Agricultural Policy is needed. Currently, more than 40 percent of the total yearly budget is spent on agriculture. These funds mainly benefit large farmers and trans-national food and transport corporations, while at the same time harming small farmers in the EU and agricultural producers in developing countries. This policy should be altered.

The SP welcomes the decision that next year will be used as a period for reflection, clarification and discussion. This time should be used to change the European Union fundamentally. Europe must pay more attention to what citizens are saying. On the day after the massive 'no', a majority of the parliament supported a resolution, brought forward by the SP, calling for a Broad National Debate about the future of Europe. This national debate should find an answer to the question of where the European project should lead to. It is of major concern that politicians start listening to the public and close the gap between them and the citizens. Perhaps the national discussion will bring Europe closer to the people, and citizens will be more committed to the idea that some cross-border issues should be dealt with in an international context. And hopefully, the national debate will help those politicians who have lost contact with the people to understand the feelings that exist among the Dutch public about the European Union. The national debate could help to close the gap, but in the end it's up to the politicians to take their job as representatives of the people seriously.

This article was published in the July 2005 bulletin of the Centre for a Social Europe.

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