Years of political debate, one constitution and two no-votes have shaped the way to a new European Treaty.
In the wake of the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, which is to reform Europe institutionally, one of the two no-voting countries, the Netherlands, looks unlikely to have a second referendum on the new document.
Officials are worried that allowing a referendum will cause their people to block the way to the much-needed new Treaty, stipulating that "another no vote in a referendum would make the Netherlands' position in the Union unworkable". But pro and anti-European opposition parties have criticized the government's decision to forego a referendum.
They believe the Treaty is the governments' chance to convince its people of the importance of Europe and the people's chance to be, once again, consulted on Europe's move forward.
The First Referendum
On the first of June 2005, after months of campaigning by both political proponents and opponents of the great European project, 63 per cent of the Dutch went to the polling stations. Out of all the voters, 61,6 per cent voted against and 38 per cent voted for to the European Constitution.
Theories on the 'No' ranged from general scepticism towards the EU; concern over an undemocratic Brussels meddling in Dutch national affairs, fear for loss of identity in an ever growing Europe that may one day take on Turkey, opposition to the prospect of more cheap Eastern-European workers, and the rise of prices under the Euro. All such concerns seem to have affected the voters choice. A high European official close to the government considered: "These are fears that the Dutch political elite has never addressed."
Two years later, the Lisbon Treaty (the Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community) the treaty that must make Europe a more workable union, has seen the light. It scraps a number of elements that were deemed vital to the constitutional level of the treaty, such as the flag and the anthem, as well as the name of the treaty. But it holds on to a number of changes, such as the abolishment of the national veto in a number of legislative areas or the provision that a million signatures can put certain subjects on the European agenda.
While some argue that the new treaty is largely similar to the old constitution, others see the symbolic differences between the two. Tom Eijsbouts, Professor of European Constitutional Law and its History at the University of Amsterdam: "The real difference between the first and the second treaty is in the fact that the first treaty has been rejected. The new treaty is a recognition of the fact that the people were not eager for a constitutional treaty."
A second referendum?
In the coming years the Treaty will have to be ratified in 28 European states, through a parliamental vote or a referendum. So far, only Ireland has decided it will ratify the document by referendum. The Dutch Council of State (the organ advising the cabinet on proposed legislation) has already advised that the Lisbon Treaty lacks any truly constitutional features that would warrant it to have to be checked in a referendum. The Dutch cabinet has followed that recommendation and has decided against citizen consultation.
Being a staunch supporter of referendums, the socialist party has decided to take up the case for a referendum, based on the conviction that the Lisbon Agreement is only slightly different from the constitutional treaty. It has initiated a number of actions, among which a website collecting signatures to start off a discussion on Europe, as well as the devising of a draft law proposing a referendum.
Although socialist MP Harry Van Bommel intends to table a legislative proposal on the referendum, he deems the chances of it succeeding "very small" now there is no majority in the House of Representatives for it.
Indeed for a second referendum to be held, a parliamental majority needs a major party to support is. This majority lacks now that coalition party PVDA (Dutch Labour Party), which supported the first referendum, has decided to accept the advice of the Council of State. Dutch parties that support a second referendum are the PVdD (Party for the Animals), PVV (Party of Freedom). Both oppose the European Treaty. Two parties that support further European integration but nonetheless want a referendum are Groenlinks (Green Left) and the D66 (Democrats 66).
Alexander Van Steenderen, spokesman for the SP on European Affairs has indicated that although the way to a referendum is effectively closed to opposition parties by the cabinet's stance, its party still values a debate about the European Treaty: "We nonetheless want a debate on referendum even if it has no chance of succeeding, as we want parties to publicly take a stand."
An Enduring Legacy
But the legacy of the Dutch 'No' is not forgotten now that there is insufficient opposition to stall the ratification process of the Treaty through a second referendum. The negotiation position of the Netherlands in Europa is precarious. It is being branded as one of the two countries that blocked the way to a truly constitutional treaty, and so the Dutch may have to step up their pro-European stance. At the same time, a government's move away from the Euro-sceptic contingent of its electorate may decrease support for the cabinet parties in the next national elections. Tom Eijsbouts is among those who have warning about the problematic position of the Netherlands in Europe resulting from the No-vote: "The patience of other countries is slowly disappearing. We'll have to earn back some goodwill. This has cost the Netherlands. The government really owes Europe, but they have no idea just how much."
Then there is the Dutch voter. While some believe the Dutch are happy to get on with their day to day lives, now they've had a chance to air their discomfort with the Union, others feel different. They believe that the government's move may fuel anti-European feelings and is, at best, a flagrant disregard citizens concerns over Europe which may umtimately undermine people's confidence in the government. GroenLinks spokesperson for partyleader Femke Halsema, Ton van der Lee, is one of these: "We have witnessed a decreasing support for Europe with the Dutch people. We feel you need to get people involved with Europe." He also feels that the governments decision is likely to erode support for the Union further." We think European integration is important, economically, and in terms of environmental protection too. But we feel it is important to draw people into such important decisions. A referendum would be one of the ways to do so."
MP Harry Van Bommel is one of those speaking out against the governments attempt to bypass its people: "The electorate were first allowed to make a choice about an important treaty, and that was good to increase people's involvement with Europe. Now, however they [the government] are saying that people may not vote, that makes the government unbelievable."
But there is also concern among people closer to the government. One High European official warned: "The Dutch government has created two myths; that the constitution was the blueprint for a European superstate, and that the Dutch government has, singlehandedly, sent that proposal to the bin by co-writing a simpler treaty that would help Europe function again." He however foresees that: "the Dutch will wake up eventually and recognize that the treaty is largely the same as the old one, and so realise the government has fooled them." Whether the Dutch will wake up eventually or not, it will not be until the spring of this year, when the treaty will be ratified in the House of Representatives, that the government can breath a sigh of relief that at least it wont be the Netherlands blocking the way to further integration.