Referendum "initiative law" proposed: Premier Balkenende "evasive and dishonest"

1 November 2007

Referendum "initiative law" proposed: Premier Balkenende "evasive and dishonest"

SP Member of Parliament and European affairs spokesman Harry van Bommel today presented the proposed "initiative law", a measure required under the Dutch constitution before a referendum can be called. In proposing the law, the SP was joined by four small opposition parties: the Green Left, the centrist D66, the right-wing populists of the Freedom Party (PVV) and the single-issue animal rights party the PvdD.

Van Bommel announced the initiative during this afternoon's parliamentary debate on the recent EU summit. In addition, he confronted Premier Jan-Peter Balkenende with a leaked document listing decisions taken at a meeting of the national council of ministers, whose proceedings are supposed to be confidential, in which it is stated that the Cabinet would not cooperate in any way with the proposed initiative law. In other words, should Parliament pass it, this would not mean a referendum.

When Balkenende refused to comment on the revelation, Van Bommel accused him of dishonesty. Strong words, but under the country's constitution, in case such as this the government is not permitted to interfere with parliamentary business by commenting openly on a proposed "initiative law" until it has been debated by both houses of parliament. In this case, the leaked document represented, whether deliberately or through carelessness, a clear breach of this rule. Knowing that the government would take the unusual but not unconstitutional step of refusing to comply with a parliamentary initiative may well have persuaded the Labour Party – the junior party in a government headed by Balkenende's Christian Democrats - that rocking the boat by supporting the proposal was not worth the trouble, leaving the SP with only small opposition parties to support its proposal.

“This is quite hypocritical," said Harry van Bommel. “You've already decided in the national council of ministers that you will block this proposed law. You haven't so much as interfered with the proposal as put a bomb under it. This sort of evasiveness is unworthy of a prime minister. It's evasive and dishonest." Despite van Bommel's vigorous attack, Balkenende stuck to his guns, citing the council of ministers' confidentiality as formal grounds for his refusal to comment.

The proposal for an initiative law was nevertheless presented, despite its almost certain defeat now that the Labour Party, as well as the second biggest opposition party, the right-wing liberals of the VVD, have decided not to support it. “It's become a question of principle," Van Bommel explains. "The Dutch citizen has a right to know who is responsible for the fact that there won't be a referendum, and not via the media, but by means of a vote in parliament."

The proposal is expected to be voted at the end of January, before the new EU treaty is presented to Parliament for approval.

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