Dutch Rub for EU Constitution Europe's Existential Crisis

Holland on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly against ratifying the European constitution. Coming just three days after France's rejection, the vote has plunged the EU into an identity crisis. The time may finally have come to define what exactly the European Union actually is.

The Euro-analysts are hard at work. Spin-doctors are putting in overtime. Newspaper commentators are laying in extra supplies of ink. Everyone, in short, who has something to say about the deep crisis facing the European Union following the rejection of the EU constitution in referenda held in France on Sunday and in Holland on Wednesday are rushing to write prescriptions as they probe the ailing club. Yet nobody really has any clue what to do next.

The vote in Holland presented the EU constitution with an even more thunderously loud "no" than its predecessor in France. In a larger than expected turnout of 62.8 percent, 61.6 percent of the Dutch elected to scrap the document as it currently stands, with only 38.4 percent favoring it. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was quick to announce that his government would respect the results of the non-binding referendum -- the first to be held in Holland in 200 years. Europe's common currency, the euro, plunged to $1.2158 in New York -- its lowest rate in eight months -- before beginning a slight rebound on Thursday.

"The idea of Europe has lived for the politicians, but not the Dutch people," Balkenende said on Wednesday evening. "That will have to change. We will need to bring across the message that there are doubts here about the fast pace of change, the Dutch identity and other, financial, concerns."

Super-state versus nation state

In other words, Holland's democratically elected leaders -- in a trend evident across the continent -- are out of touch with their electorate when it comes to European integration. Whereas European politicians are embracing the idea of a super state, European citizens are unwilling to let go of the nation state. And the people now, finally, have been given a voice to raise their concerns.

That, at least, was the tune Dutch constitution opponents were singing on Wednesday. "When two-thirds of the parliament are for the constitution and two out of three people in this country are against it," said constitution opponent and parliamentarian Geert Wilders, "then that is a sign that a lot is going wrong." The refrain was taken up by Socialist Party politician Gerrie Elfrink. "We in Holland, we feel Dutch," he said. "We want to work together with France, Germany and England. But we want to be Dutch. Europe exists only in the minds of politicians in Brussels."

Opponents of the constitution weren't alone in driving that point home. "Once again, the vote has shown how deep the divide is between the citizens and the (parliament) is," wrote the Dutch daily de Volkskrant.

This, of course, is the populist lesson delivered by the vote: It's now the people's turn to rise up against leaders who many feel have fallen out of step with their citizens. It's a lesson which should be taken to heart.

There's also another to be learned here. Namely, that politicians elected to represent the populace often have an entirely different set of concerns than the voters themselves. Whereas Europe's politicians continue evoking the EU as a bulwark of peace and stability (witness the Dutch government's ill-conceived television advertisements prior to the vote which threatened that a No vote was a vote for war), citizens of the EU's founding members see dangers coming at them from all sides -- be it the possibility of eventual Turkish membership or the much-maligned "Polish plumber." Representative democracy focuses on issues of regional stability and macro-economics. But direct democracy is more concerned with national sovereignty and the pocket book.

And make no mistake, the referenda in both Holland and France were not about the constitution itself so much as they were -- in large part -- votes of fear. The French, as Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in a column in the Guardian this week, are afraid of losing their jobs to cheaper workers coming from the new Eastern European member states. They are afraid of immigration from Poland, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and other new and potential club members. Generally, they are afraid of change. The Dutch fear losing control of their socially liberal policies on euthanasia and marijuana. In immigration and integration, they now see a vexing problem. And like the French, they are concerned about the exodus of jobs to countries with lower wages.

Existential headache

With the populist cat now out of the bag, however, Europe must now figure out where to go next. It faces a profoundly existential set of questions. Has the EU gone too far in passing an ever-lengthening list of regulations controlling more and more aspects of Europeans' lives? Has it over-extended itself by a massive enlargement that grew from 15 to 25 in 2004 and will jump to 27 in two years, with even more on the horizon? Is "peace in Europe" still enough of a motivation for European integration on a continent where many countries now take that concept for granted?

European leaders have recognized the weighty concerns that must now be addressed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a "period of reflection" following the French vote and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "The verdict of these referendums now raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe." European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who seemed at a loss on Wednesday evening in the face of the one-two punch delivered by two EU founding members, said, "who knows what this illness means for the organism (of Europe) and whether it will have long-term consequences?"

In the short term, however, life goes on. Juncker has urged member countries to continue the ratification process and on Wednesday, Latvia became the tenth country to approve the document.

On June 16, EU leaders will meet for a regularly scheduled summit in Brussels. That meeting, however, has suddenly taken on a whole new urgency. Many will be calling for a clear strategy to address all that currently ails the EU. Yet it is still too early to expect much, especially from European leaders who have no "Plan B" up their sleeves. And two weeks is not nearly enough time to develop a road map that will guide European politicians through the myriad worries shared by their constituencies.

It would, however, be an opportune moment to initiate a discussion on the one question voters of France and the Netherlands would like to have answered.

Just what, exactly, is the European Union?

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.