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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 October, 2004, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
EU faces Dutch grudge test
By Andy Clark
Radio Netherlands, Amsterdam

The Netherlands is one of only a handful of countries around the world that has never held a national referendum.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende
The Dutch government holds the EU's rotating presidency
So when Dutch people pass judgement on the EU constitution in a specially convened vote, likely to be held in March or April next year, the country will be stepping into uncharted political territory.

The result should be a foregone conclusion, as all the major political parties are urging voters to give a resounding "Yes" to the constitution, but concerns are being raised that the Dutch may be dealt a harsh lesson in the political reality of referendums.

"Sometimes referendums are not about the issue itself but about the government or something else," said Dutch European Affairs Minister Atzo Nicolai.

"It's always possible that the public will be influenced by what is bothering them at the time, rather than the subject of the referendum itself," says Labour Party MP Frans Timmermans. He was on the team of more than 100 MEPs who came together to draw up the EU constitution.

Controversial cuts

The political climate in the Netherlands certainly offers plenty of distractions.

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The centre-right coalition government is pushing through massive cutbacks in public spending as it seeks to reform the social security sector in the face of an ageing population.

Cutbacks worth 20bn euros ($25bn) have been budgeted - the largest spending cuts in Dutch history.

There are plans to axe financial incentives that make early retirement possible and to raise the retirement age itself to 66 or even 67.

KEY DEVELOPMENTS
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June 2004: Text agreed

This is causing uproar. Last month saw a nationwide public transport strike and a mass demonstration by more than 200,000 people in Amsterdam. More protests are planned.

"People are very upset with the government because of the austerity programme because they don't see where it is going, so I think that might have some influence," said Mr Timmermans.

Other issues may also spill over into the referendum debate. There is concerns about the possible accession of Turkey and a latent distrust of the political establishment in the Netherlands, which manifested itself two years ago with the rise of the right-wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn.

Disenchantment

Fortuyn was assassinated ahead of elections in 2002 and his party - List Pim Fortuyn - has now lost much of its support.

But Frans Timmermans believes the disenchantment with mainstream politics, which led to the rise of the LPF, is still very much alive.

The electorate is very volatile and therefore it's always possible there could be a surprise
Alfred Pijpers
Political scientist

"There is still this lingering dissatisfaction with politics in general - the Pim Fortuyn phenomenon. The man died, but the phenomenon is still there.

"It's not very apparent now, but I think it's not going to be terribly difficult to mobilise that and people like the LPF will try their utmost to use the EU constitution as a means to this end," said Mr. Timmermans.

Latest opinion polls in the Netherlands show that about half of Dutch people are for the EU constitution, 20% are against and 30% don't know.

All the major parties, the government coalition and the opposition Labour Party, will campaign for a "Yes" vote. Only parties further to the right, the LPF, and the left, the Socialist Party, will urge voters to reject the treaty.

And although locked in a bitter dispute with the government the trades unions will also back a "Yes" vote. They are pushing for a separate referendum on the government's austerity package.

Uncertainties

But political scientist Alfred Pijpers, from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, says despite the almost united political front there are still potential pitfalls.

Protesters in the Netherlands
More than 200,000 people turned out to protest against welfare cuts
"What is possible is that several platforms will emerge. In that case, opposition to the government will not be channelled through the main opposition parties but through the fringe channels of the smaller left- and right-wing parties and special platforms created for the occasion.

"The electorate is very volatile and therefore it's always possible there could be a surprise," he added.

The referendum, called for by parliament against the wishes of the biggest government coalition party, the Christian Democrat CDA, is not legally binding, but the government has indicated it will respect the result.

A very low turnout would make this an uncomfortable position, but there have been some positive signs of renewed interest in Europe from Dutch voters.

Turnout was up to 40% in elections for the European Parliament in June this year, a major improvement on the historically low 29.9% in 1999.

The Netherlands is one of the six founder members of the EU, the nation which makes the largest net per capita contributions to the EU and one of the most enthusiastic members of the EU club.

So it would seem almost unthinkable that the Dutch would reject the constitution.

"I'm quite confident there's still a majority of Dutch people in favour of the constitution, but it's not going to be a landslide," said Frans Timmermans.




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