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No referendum for the Netherlands?

October 3, 2007 17:40 | Erik Meijer MEP

Last week, the Dutch government announced that it saw no need to hold a referendum on the revised text which has replaced the proposed European Constitution, the so-called European Reform Treaty. A few weeks earlier, Erik Meijer, MEP, a member of the Netherlands' biggest opposition party, addressed a fringe meeting at the Trades Union Congress in the UK. Organised by Trade Unionists Against the European Constitution, the meeting was interested to hear what the state of play was in Meijer's country. This is what he told them:

There have been always advocates of a European Union Constitution. Most of those people were not the bad guys. They were mainly idealists, dreaming of a world of peace and solidarity, to start with a better Europe. The hard core of their ideas on a constitution contains more rights for the people against those powers who govern them, less freedom for multinational companies to do what they prefer to do, disarmament, environmental protection and support for the development of poor countries in the Third World.

This kind of constitutional idealism has nothing to do with the reality of to-day. The proposal of former French president Giscard d'Estaing, published in 2003, is a totally different kind of EU-constitution. It is characterized by four main elements:

First: It seeks to provide free market capitalism and the NATO military system with a constitutional basis for all eternity. It contains therefore elements of a right wing policy, such as unlimited free competition, a continuing liberalisation of services, and the obligation for all member states to improve their military capacity. Of course this is what the right advocates in general, and what they try to implement in their governmental policy, but by making it the hard core of a constitution they are trying to prevent left majorities from changing this if they win power.

Second: Instead of the current 27 member states now - which will probably be more in the future - it seeks to create a super state Europe. Justice and foreign policy, until now an area reserved to the separate states, will be included in the EU competences. A small minority of member states can no longer veto a growing number of EU laws. With unanimity the national governmental delegations in the Council can abolish for ever still more remaining rights of the member states. In addition, the European Court of Justice will have the opportunity to decide that more central decision-making is unavoidable.

Third: They create not a normal constitution, which is always a relatively short document with sections on state structure and civil rights, but a kind of telephone book with 500 articles. Nobody, except those people in power and their officials, can understand and remember such a text. So it creates a monopoly for a small group of privileged people to impose their interpretation of constitutional obligations. And it becomes nearly impossible to change or to abolish all of those obligations once they have been adopted.

And at the end of the range of characteristics, number four: The constitutional text of 2003 was a 'package deal', of bad points and good points together. To get support for the bad points, they included some wishes of trade unions, environmental movements and organisations for international solidarity. In this way they hoped to integrate those organisations into their political aims. The leaders of the European Trade Union Congress were in favour of this constitutional text, for example, because they could find inside the text some elements for which they had lobbied. And by including some weak points of democratisation in the text the rulers expected that their project would be seen as desirable for everybody.

EU member states have the freedom to decide themselves on the way in which they will decide whether to support or reject this proposal for a constitution. In most states it is only a decision of the national parliament. In general 75 to 85% of the national parliamentarians are in favour of this project, but the public opinion is much more critical.

Up until now only four countries have organized referenda to approve or to reject this text. Only in Spain did the government win broad support for the constitution. They were in a hurry to be the first, leaving insufficient time for a national debate. The government asked the voters not to read the document, but to show their gratefulness for the billions of euros Spain received from the EU, for infrastructural projects and agrarian support. Despite this many voters stayed at home. In Spain the perspective of rejection was completely absent. Also in Luxembourg the government got a majority in favour, but only of 54%, and this after the popular prime minister had announced his intention to resign if he did not get enough support.

In the Netherlands and in France the constitution was defeated by the voters. In both countries there was no legal obligation to organize such a referendum, but in both cases supporters of the EU constitution took the initiative for the referendum in order to show that the majority of the people support their positive view. In France it was the President of the Republic, who is in fact the only one who has the right in law to initiate a referendum. In the Netherlands it was the parliamentary groups of three parties, the social democrats, the centre-left liberals and the Greens, who took the initiative. This was an exceptional proposal, as we had never in more than two centuries, since 1797, had a national referendum. This initiative from the constitution's advocates won a majority because we, the Socialist Party, supported their proposal, as it gave us the opportunity to resist this project.

In France and in the Netherlands the fact of the coming referendum changed the political situation. At the start of the campaign there was still widespread lack of interest. The first opinion polls in the Netherlands showed that there would be a low rate of participation, and of those who intended to participate one third was in favour, one third against and one third had still not decided. The first reaction of many people was: "We have positive and negative feelings concerning the European Union. We cannot decide pro or contra the foreseen future developments. We, the ordinary people, cannot influence this project of our rulers. They will continue on their way, and we cannot prevent it. So we won't vote, we'll stay at home." But after a few months of campaigning interest had increased enormously. More and more people took outspoken positions pro or contra.

In France the national debate lasted six months, but in the Netherlands only two months. I participated in local debates, mainly in the Netherlands but also in France, and I was surprised by the degree of the people's interest.

For us, the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, our first aim was to promote voters' participation. We are a relatively new party, which entered national parliament only in the 'nineties, and have now twenty-five MPs, twelve Senators and two Members of the European Parliament.

Our perspective was not to campaign against any possible text of a new EU-treaty. We did not defend the existing treaties, which never had the support of the people, and we didn't resist changes in the existing rules. We campaigned only against the neo-liberal, militarist and centralist character of the text. For many reasons we prefer small-scale institutions and small-scale decision making. In large- scale institutions the power of multinational private companies is always much greater than the democratic influence of ordinary people. We campaigned for the right of the people to amend those important proposals on the future of the European Union. Rejection of the proposed text could provoke a broad debate in society, we felt, which could result in a better proposal for a renewal of the treaty.

You know the final result: in France 55% against, and in the Netherlands as many as 62%. In the Netherlands the participation of voters was more than 20% higher than in the elections for the European Parliament a year earlier. It is interesting that both in the Netherlands and in France the majority of trade unionists and the majority of social democrat voters voted 'no', despite the appeal of their leaders to vote 'yes'. In both countries also half of the Green voters said 'no', although their leaders were in favour of the project.

And you have to be aware that this was not a vote against the EU membership of the Netherlands or France. In those countries and their direct neighbours there are only a few advocates of leaving the EU. Differently from Great Britain or, for example, Sweden, we are narrowly linked with our neighbour states and we have many problems in common. Our borders are not situated in the sea, but cross densely populated urban areas. For work, transport, environment and even public services we are highly interdependent.

After those overwhelming results, the advocates of the original constitutional text have again taken the initiative. They know that their original proposals are unacceptable to the people, yet they try to maintain them as much as possible. After an interruption of two years, in June this year they agreed the main lines for a new text. It will be much shorter, because the existing rules will not form part of the new treaty. So those rules, introduced in the past without referenda, will be kept outside the debate and outside any voting.

The new document that will be finalized next month, will claim a less far-reaching significance than the previous one. The names 'Constitution' and 'Minister of Foreign Affairs' have been replaced by other unclear terms. The treaty doesn't refer to the existing European flag or to the European anthem. The right wing French President Sarkozy was clever enough to moderate the free competition paragraph, in order to convince the protesting French workers, without changing the right wing neo-liberal policies. But the main contents are the same as in the earlier version. Even the main author of the text, former French President Giscard d'Estaing, admits that the hard core has been saved.

To avoid new referenda the twenty-seven national governments moved Chapter 2, the Charter of Civil Rights of the European Union, to an annex. So it looks less like a real constitution. It is surprising that this undisputed part is no longer inside the text. It can only be removed for tactical reasons. This chapter coincided strongly with the European Convention on Human Rights, initiated by the Council of Europe, which is supported by forty-six countries instead of only the EU twenty-seven. It is not better or worse than that treaty, or than the national constitutions. We don't need it, but nobody has strong reasons to object to it. Some progressive people voted 'yes', only because of this chapter. Now they have lost the one thing they liked.

Nevertheless, we have recorded a partial success. For us this result is still not good enough, but we are halfway to the necessary change. This success is not a reason to stop our campaign but to continue. Many people tend always to vote for final results, even if they doubt the quality of the proposals, because they want to be constructive. So we have to convince them that this text cannot be the final offer. By rejecting the second proposal we create the necessity of a third proposal, which will be at least less dangerous or possibly even acceptable.

In France it is certain that there will not be a referendum. In that country only the president can decide to organize such a vote, and the newly elected president Sarkozy has openly announced to that he will refuse to do so. In the Netherlands we are demanding again a referendum. The government will refuse it, as did the previous government in 2005, but probably they will be overruled again by the parliament. Not only the greens and the left wing liberals, will support our claim, but even the social-democrats of the Labour Party, who have for half a year been one of the three parties in government. They cannot afford to refuse a new referendum, as we, the Socialist Party, are in opinion polls bigger than they are and have more trade-union support. A refusal of the Dutch Labour Party would be destructive for their own role in the competition with us, the Socialist Party. (1)

A new complication is that a small majority in the Senate, a kind of indirectly elected House of Lords, seems to reject the possibility of a new referendum. The reason for this is that the smallest governmental party, the Christian Union, no longer opposes the treaty. In the European Parliament they belong to the same group as the British UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and for their European parliamentary group the common aim is to resist the Constitution. This small Christian Union, campaigned together with us against the Constitution in 2005. Now they seem to accept the new version of the treaty. In that case their parliamentarians and senators can reject a new referendum, and in the case of such a referendum they will not call their adherents to vote again 'no'. So it is remarkable that the Dutch ally of UKIP may possibly block a new referendum on the constitution.

Despite all of this, the possibility of a new 'no' from the Dutch voters remains big. What is important now is now what happens in those EU member states which have not yet decided, because their rulers fear a defeat. Now the key is not only in the hands of the Netherlands, but also in the hands of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and the Czech Republic. In all those countries we have the opportunity to win if we convince the voters that we are not destructive, but want to take the opportunity to improve the new EU-treaty.

(1) This has of course been overtaken by events, but Labour's refusal to call for a referendum is indeed having serious repercussions for the party

Erik Meijer has been a MEP for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP) and the United Left Group/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) since 1999.

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