Friday, September 21, 2007

Mark Mardell

Mark Mardell on the Dutch Referendum discussion:

Another Dutch No?
Mark Mardell 21 Sep 07, 12:15 AM

People whistle through the Binnenhof’s cobbled square on their bikes, scarcely giving a glance to either the rather lovely understated architecture or the politicians bustling in and out of the many ministries.

This part of The Hague could be a quiet monument to democracy. Even a rather showy fountain in brown and gold doesn’t undermine the impression of a rather harmonious relationship between the rulers and the people who chose them.

The office of the Dutch Prime Minister in one courtyard, the entrance to the upper and lower houses of parliament in another, various ministries scattered around these two unpretentious courtyards, which have long been the seat of the government of the Netherlands.

But when cabinet ministers meet at Number 19 later today, will they give the people a say over the new European Reform Treaty?

My strong guess is No, but as you’ll see that won’t quite be the end of the story.

The Dutch government is a coalition. The dominant partners, the Christian Democrats, are - like all the governments in the European Union - in favour of the treaty and anxious to avoid a referendum. Gordon Brown too will be hoping they don’t hold one.

It was of course the Dutch who nailed the constitution. Days after the French voted "Non" their "Nee" made sure it was in effect dead. This saved Tony Blair from holding a referendum he never wanted. But a second Dutch referendum now would put wind in the sails of those who want one in Britain and pile the pressure on Mr Brown.

Curious allies

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, a Christian Democrat, said I would have to wait and see what the cabinet decided but he was sure there would be a unanimous decision.

"We listened to the Dutch public, they said No to the constitutional treaty, now we have a treaty which is completely different," he said. "It is not forecasting a European superstate, there is a clear division between what should be decided in member states and what should be decided in Europe."

The Dutch Christian Democrats have very curious allies in their argument. The Christian Union shot to prominence during the referendum campaign, noisily and successfully championing a No. So you would think their position would be obvious. But they don’t like referendums, and never have.

But it's not just that. One of their MPs, Esme Weigman, told me: "The new treaty is just a modification of the Treaty of Nice, it's another situation from when we had a constitutional treaty. The decisions during the summit in June were very good."

They now have three seats in the cabinet so I suggested that cynics might say the reason for their change of heart was obvious, that they were now part of the government and wanted to stay part of it.

She said, "Yes, people say the Christian Union has changed. But it's not the Christian Union that has changed but the cabinet that has changed on Europe. The most important thing is now Europe will go forward in co-operation but not go forward to a United States of Europe."

The problem for the Dutch government is their Labour Party partners. It's the party's policy to hold referendums. Even though it is for the treaty.

The Dutch parliament is a rather wonderful building, combing old and new with sweeping empty halls and strange giant mobiles hanging in the air. Comfy too: I wish we had had squishy leather sofas and flat-screen TVs during my days at Westminster. It makes the traditional journalistic job of hanging around to “doorstep” ministers a lot more comfortable.


The most interesting politician I spoke to was Labour's Luuk Blom. He said: "I’m in favour of a referendum It's part of our programme, referendums are a new way to decided things in a country, to link people more closely to politics. You have to take the people very seriously. The No was a very strong No... I’m in favour of a referendum, and the chances are 50/50."

But he likes the treaty and was obviously in some agonies about what the people might decide if they did get that vote, a view that I think is very common among the political class in the Netherlands, and indeed elsewhere.

"Is it possible to take a No this time? Holland would be in a very difficult position in Europe. We’d be on the bench in football terms. When the Dutch said No two years ago there was a possibility to start new negotiations. That’s not possible any more. This treaty is it. So if we said No, would we be in the European Union? Maybe that should be the question."

The parliament is open to a constant stream of visitors who come to listen to the debates and look at the building. But during the time I was there I never saw anyone approach the displays and the giant yellow flags that cover one wall and part of the floor, emblazoned with the question "Hoezo EU?" ("What’s the EU about?")

There were different views, of course, from those I spoke to, but none of the No-voters said they were happy with the new treaty. In fact none of them mentioned the treaty itself: their complaints were broader.

Professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam Jos de Beus surprised me, telling, me that he thought a referendum was likely. He added: "The mood is Eurosceptic, there is no sense of European identity. There is still a sense that the European space is a space of globalisation, of Islamisation, that Brussels is a superstate. The climate is still quite volatile, so the government is afraid of a second failure. It's still quite easy for the Eurosceptics to win a referendum."

This is exactly the fear of politicians that people, supposedly voting on a technical matter, will give the answer to a big political question, and an answer which most European politicians do not like - and regard in fact as untenable, unpractical, unworkable.

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