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EU: Dutch Look Set To Join French In Nixing European Constitution

As if France's rejection of the European Union's new constitution weren't enough, Dutch voters are also set to nix the treaty when they voice their opinions in a referendum tomorrow. The latest polls show France's "non" vote on 29 May will encourage even more Dutch to vote against the treaty -- an outcome that would further cloud the prospects for future European expansion.

Prague, 31 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As in France, Dutch opposition to the constitution involves an array of economic, social, and political grievances that appear to have little to do with the treaty itself.

"It is not really about the content of the constitution, because almost nobody knows it right and there is a lot of confusing arguments [among] people [about] what it really means," said Maurice de Hond, an independent poll analyst based in Amsterdam. "This whole referendum is really not about the constitution. It is maybe more about the fact we had no referendum five years ago, about the euro. Some people are angry about that, so they will vote now for what they wanted to vote five years ago."

The latest opinion polls today show that some 65 percent of Dutch are likely to vote against the EU constitution.

The document was designed to streamline governance of the newly expanded 25-country bloc. But its likely demise following rejection by France and Holland could spell the end of expansion to countries such as Turkey and Ukraine, and raises serious questions about the depth of EU political integration, particularly in foreign and economic policy.

Support for the EU in the Netherlands, which like France is one of the bloc's founding members, has traditionally been strong. But in recent years, growing political, economic, and social instability have all fueled a sense among the Dutch that the EU is not always working in their interests.

The Dutch are proud of their liberal laws that take a softer approach to issues like drugs and prostitution. But Amsterdam resident Ineke Padt said many Dutch feel that the EU is starting to encroach on their outlook.

"I think the laws in Holland are very different from the laws in other countries in Europe, for instance our liberal drugs policy, prostitution, or euthanasia," Padt said. "I am very in favor of that and I think the other European countries don't understand our ideas and our ideals, so I think it is going to be very bad for us if we are going to get an European constitution."

Also weighing on tomorrow's referendum is a growing rift in Dutch society with its large Islamic population -- which touches directly on people's feelings about possible future EU membership with predominantly Muslim Turkey.

The murder six months ago of an outspoken filmmaker by a suspected Islamist stoked rising hostility toward Muslim immigrants.

Anti-immigration maverick Geert Wilders is campaigning hard for people to vote "No" as a way to stymie Turkey's EU chances.

"If Turkey would join the European Union in 10, 15 years, it probably would be with more than 80 million people, the largest country in Europe with the largest say directly in Europe, but also indirectly because we have to implement every day more legislation from Brussels, not from The Hague -- they also have more to say about the Dutch laws than we have ourselves," Wilders said.

Like the French, the Dutch also have economic concerns about the new constitution -- concerns that may or may not have anything to do with the treaty but which have become wrapped up in the vote.

Across the 10 countries that adopted the euro in 2000, people have loudly complained that the new currency brought inflation and lower purchasing power. In the Netherlands, people complain that their former currency, the guilder, was undervalued when it was switched with the euro.

Meanwhile, the referendum is also seen as a vote on Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's center-right government is deeply unpopular amid poor economic growth, rising unemployment, and budget cuts.

John Palmer, director of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think tank, said Balkenende appears to have fought a losing battle to persuade citizens not to turn the referendum on the EU constitution into a vote of confidence in his government or an expression of their dislike of the euro and opposition to Turkey's bid to join the bloc.

"Well the Dutch seem to be mainly concerned about domestic issues," Balkenende said. "What is happening is the Dutch government of Mr. Balkenende, the central-right coalition, is very unpopular. So too, incidentally, is the government of President [Jacques] Chirac in France and people are protesting about their governments."

Nine countries have so far ratified the EU constitution. But to take it effect, the treaty must be approved by all 25 member states.

EU leaders will now have to figure out what to do in the face of the treaty's defeat.

A key problem will be identifying exactly what people don't like about the constitution, and what changes they'd be willing to accept.

That won't be easy, however. In France, the referendum was seen as a rejection of free-market policies that many new EU members favor. In the Netherlands, the vote could be seen as rejection of expanding to Turkey and meddling by Brussels in the laws of the country.

(with wire reports)