[Graham Bowley] Growing skepticism from Dutch on EU charter

by Graham Bowley
International Herald Tribune, 13 May 2005

THE HAGUE

"Dutch people feel society is getting colder, harsher. They don't feel connected to this society. The political establishment is saying more Europe is better for Holland but more and more Dutch people are feeling that more Europe is undermining the correct characteristics of Dutch society."

— Arjo Klamer

Outside the Dutch Parliament one morning this week, Michiel van Hulten, 36, a pro-EU campaigner, was trying to persuade eight skeptical Dutch tourists to vote for the new constitutional treaty.

"The Netherlands will stay the Netherlands and Europe will work better," he said, hopefully, holding a garish placard that declared: "A stronger Netherlands in a better Europe."

But Lobi van der Gragt, from a flower-growing region in northwest Holland, said she wasn't happy with the EU, so why vote for a constitution that cemented it? "We see our money going abroad," she said, waving her finger.

The seven women around her tut-tutted, looking equally unconvinced.

Their skepticism is borne out by opinion polls which suggest that, in a national referendum in the Netherlands on June 1, a majority of voters will reject the EU treaty.

The referendum is merely consultative and nonbinding. Even if voters reject the treaty, the Parliament could still ratify it. But the main political parties have agreed to stand by the referendum result as long as voter turnout is more than 30 percent.

The Dutch disenchantment is surprising in a nation that was one of the Union's six founding members and for decades has been among the strongest supporters of European integration. But the Dutch appear to be preparing to use the referendum to express a long list of grievances about the direction the Union is taking, as well as general hostility toward their government and about the state of their society.

"The Netherlands had a permissive consensus about the EU," said Mendeltje van Keulen, a fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, in the Hague. "European cooperation was arranged by the political elite and people just agreed to it, but now people are saying we have to stand up and say not everything that happens in the EU is right."

In recent weeks, international attention has focused on the possibility that disgruntled French voters could dismiss the treaty in the referendum in France on May 29. Yet a no three days later in the Netherlands would be equally disastrous for the EU.

All 25 EU members must ratify the treaty for it to be adopted. Six have so far approved it, and the German Parliament voted in favor on Thursday. But in the referendums planned in France, the Netherlands, Poland, and next year in Britain, the passage of the treaty looks far more treacherous.

At The Hague this week, people complained that a project that began as a customs union which brought huge economic benefits for this small trading nation was now veering dangerously toward a social and political integration that represented an attack on Dutch sovereignty, identity and way of life.

Maxim Verkoelen, serving croissants to people busily reading newspapers in a café opposite the Parliament, worried that the Netherlands could be swallowed up in a Europe of bigger neighbors.

"We have liberal views on drugs," he said. "I don't want to vote for something that takes that away from us. We are only a small country. The other countries such as France and Germany, they have too much to say. My parents' generation feel the same way."

In a different complaint, Joost Wiel, who was selling cheese beneath horse chestnut trees in a nearby square, said that many Dutch people believed that the introduction of the euro had brought inflation to the Netherlands.

The Dutch have other financial grievances - they do not like the fact that their country is the largest per capita contributor to the EU's budget and they are angry that they had to make painful cuts to government spending to meet the EU's stability pact rules, while this year Germany and France have used their political clout to avoid the same rules.

One prominent concern is that the entry into the EU last year of eastern European countries such as Poland, and the prospective entry of Turkey in a few years' time, are helping cheaper foreign workers fill Dutch jobs and adding to the Netherlands' immigration problems. Fears that immigrants are not integrating were fueled last year by the murder by a Muslim extremist of Theo van Gogh, a critic of Islam.

"In the Dutch population there is a lot of anxiety about threats in the world. People are cocooning themselves and going back to their families," said Marcel van Herpen, director of the Cicero Foundation, a pro-EU research organization. "This anxiety is transferring itself to international organizations like the EU."

The no camp has been bolstered by high-level supporters such as Geert Wilders, a populist politician who urges rejection of the treaty so as to keep Turkey out of the EU. The Socialist Party, a small hard-left grouping, has also come out against the treaty. Another leading no-vote campaigner, Arjo Klamer, professor of cultural economics at Rotterdam's Erasmus University, said: "Dutch people feel society is getting colder, harsher. They don't feel connected to this society. The political establishment is saying more Europe is better for Holland but more and more Dutch people are feeling that more Europe is undermining the correct characteristics of Dutch society."

Yes campaigners such as van Hulten are angry that the government has not played a prominent role in arguing for the constitution or even provided enough information so that Dutch voters can make an informed decision.

Perhaps they doubted that the Dutch would ever question the EU project.

Certainly around The Hague there were no posters calling for a yes vote, only a sign on the side of a bus urging people to turn out to vote on June 1, and a few red Socialist Party posters asking, "Do you know why you said yes?"

A line of flags of the Dutch regions fluttered nearby the Parliament, but no EU blue-and-gold flag, unusual for a European seat of government.

Chris Schram, a tour guide lolling against a statue of William of Orange in the morning sun, said: "They promised me a leaflet through my letterbox, but it hasn't come. I am not going to vote for something that I know nothing about. Anyway, I am a monarchist. I would like more power for our crown. When I look at republics around the world, I get goosepimples."

However, as polls have pointed to a widening lead for the no vote, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has taken to the streets of The Hague to argue that the Netherlands needs to cooperate with its partners in Europe.

Piet Hein Donner, the justice minister, raised more eyebrows when he said a rejection would "endanger the future" and could repeat the "scenario that plunged Yugoslavia into a state of war."

Van Hulten, a former member of the European Parliament, hands out a calling card with three pledges - that the constitution will make the Netherlands stronger economically, that it will make solving big problems such as terrorism easier, and that "the Netherlands will stay the Netherlands."

"In essence, it is a choice between hope and optimism and fear and pessimism," he said. "The arguments against are being made by an older generation of politicians and journalists. We say, Don't let an older generation take Europe away from you."