Netherlands votes against EU charter


AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - The European Union constitution, already gravely wounded by France's "no"' vote Sunday, was emphatically rejected yesterday by Dutch voters in a referendum likely to have implications for Europe for years to come.

The constitution was designed to bind the 25 European Union countries into a cohesive political force, in part to counter the dominance of the United States, but has instead polarized much of the continent, threatened governments with collapse and sent its common currency, the euro, spiraling downward.

And no leader in Europe seems to know what to do about it.

Exit polls yesterday showed the constitution failing 63 percent to 37 percent in the Netherlands, a wider margin than expected and eclipsing the 55 percent "no" vote in France's referendum Sunday. More than 62 percent of registered Dutch voters showed up at the polls, a higher turnout than in the last U.S. presidential election, demonstrating the passion the issue has raised.

All members of the European Union must ratify the constitution for it to take force, and this second rejection within a week cast serious doubt on whether it could be revived in any recognizable form.

'Serious problem'

"We have a serious problem but we must continue our work," EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Brussels after the vote.

EU members will discuss the future of the constitution during a summit June 16 and 17.

The EU will continue to be governed by a series of treaties, the most tangible of which set guidelines for deficit spending, human rights, cross-border employment and economic cooperation. But the French and Dutch rejections of the constitution - and varying reasons for that - highlight the deep divisions within the countries it sought to unite.

Polls before yesterday's vote showed the Dutch deeply suspicious of ceding power to a "superstate," and they continue to harbor bad feelings for Germany and France, which have ignored EU budget-deficit guidelines, and for Greece and Italy, which have admitted presenting the union with false budget numbers.

Further, like people in many countries who have been longtime members of the European Union, they fear the bloc has grown too quickly, especially with the inclusion of 10 Eastern European countries, and many Europeans are uneasy about the prospect of Turkey joining the club.

The rejection of the constitution by the French and Dutch has also shown a stark detachment from European leaders and those they govern.

France's vote against the constitution came despite energetic campaigning by President Jacques Chirac, and the vote's outcome led to Chirac dismissing his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

The Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, also campaigned for a "yes" vote, though he announced before the vote that there would be no political resignations whatever its outcome.

"Naturally, I'm very disappointed," he said on Dutch television as he conceded the measure had lost.

After Sunday's rejection, backers of the constitution had looked optimistically to the Dutch, with hope that the French vote was more a reflection of unhappiness with Chirac and his government than with the document.

But polls here showed that the Dutch were prepared to reject the constitution for what it is - an umbrella set of rules for the European Union that would affect everything from immigration to social policies to taxation.

Dutch concerns

The constitution also calls for a common defense policy, but that provision was weakened before the ratification process began to allow individual countries to opt out on questions of military force.

In the Netherlands, a country of 16 million people, immigration has been the dominant political issue for years. The country had among the most liberal immigration policies in Europe but has steadily been tightening restrictions after a series of high-profile incidents involving Muslims, and polls showed many Dutch feared the EU constitution would lessen their control over immigration policy.

Polls showed others were concerned that a strengthened Europe could force the liberal Dutch to scrap policies such as tolerating marijuana use, prostitution and euthanasia. Some voters did not want their country lumped with more conservative governments that condemn social policies such as gay marriage.

"I voted against it, of course, because I enjoy being Dutch and do not need to be Italian or German or anything else," said Peter Van Der Meulen, 37, walking his dogs on the cobbled streets of Amsterdam. "I do not see what good it would do us to give up who we are - and how much more that would cost us."

Holland - like France, a founding member of the EU - pays a disproportionately large contribution to the European Union, and many Dutch feel their switch from the guilder to the euro is costing them spending power.

In many ways, the referendums on the constitution could not have come at a worse time. The French, German and Italian governments have been under fire by their own people for their weak economies.

And in Britain, a "yes" vote for ratification was being pushed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who stumbled back into office last month deeply unpopular and mistrusted. It's uncertain whether the British will vote as scheduled in the spring.

Another 'No' for EU

The referendum: Voters in the Netherlands rejected the European Union constitution by nearly 2-to-1.

The impact: Following France's "no" vote on Sunday, yesterday's vote casts doubt on whether the EU constitution can be salvaged in any form for years to come.

The problem: While the constitution seeks to bind Europe into a cohesive force, deep political divisions have emerged between some EU states, and some countries have expressed reluctance to cede power to a "superstate."

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