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Last Updated: Friday, 27 May, 2005, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Dutch doubters defy EU project
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Dutch cows clad in 'boo' banners
Boo to the EU: "No" campaign is ahead in the polls
You don't have to spend long in Rotterdam to realise that you are in one of Europe's great gateways to the world.

This is the largest port on the continent, a focal point of European trade. But the Netherlands is looking inwards these days, trying to decide what kind of country it wants to be.

Anti-establishment forces are riding high, there is wariness about unsettling change, and it is all having an effect on the referendum campaign on the new European constitution. The traditional Dutch pro-European consensus is no longer the only way of looking at the world.

Economic issues have come to the fore in the last few weeks.

Some people dislike the euro, they think prices have shot up. Others are unhappy about the big guns in Europe - France and Germany - flouting EU budget rules.

Then there are concerns about illegal immigration, about the perceived loss of Dutch identity. All in all, it seems easier - more satisfying perhaps - to have a good old moan, than to get to grips with Europe's complex new constitution.

Low-key campaign

When I travelled up the road to The Hague, I found that even the most senior politicians are finding it hard to get their message across.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, had popped out of his parliamentary office to answer questions from passers-by on all aspects of the constitution. Few seemed interested. A group of schoolchildren had been bussed in to make up the numbers.

Once you've voted 'Yes' it will be very difficult to withdraw or alter this text
Eric, "No" campaigner

Only in the last few days has there been any sense that a real campaign is taking place here. All the main political parties are in favour of the constitution, so are most of the media, the business organisations, and the trade unions.

And yet - are the people in revolt? The "No" campaign remains ahead in the opinion polls, and the "Yes" camp has been struggling to catch up.

"Of course there's criticism at the moment," Mr Balkenende told me. "But we have a lot to gain from this constitution if you talk about more jobs in Europe, more security in Europe, more democracy and transparency."

But on the edge of the small crowd, which had gathered round to hear the prime minister speak, a man handing out leaflets for the "No" campaign seemed pretty confident of success.

"It's quite amazing how many people say they're going to vote against," Eric said. "And my advice to people who aren't sure what the constitution is about is to vote 'No' as well. Once you've voted 'Yes' it will be very difficult to withdraw or alter this text."

Challenge

Back in Rotterdam, in the upstairs bar of a local pub, supporters of the "Yes" camp gather to debate the merits of the constitution, acknowledge some faults, and wonder what more can be done to turn this campaign around in the last few days.

Netherlands PM Jan Peter Balkenende
Jan Peter Balkenende (left) has been out trying to persuade voters
"It's going to be difficult," said one man at the bar, "but I think it can happen."

"The trouble is," said the woman standing next to him, "we're trying to persuade people who don't want to be persuaded. They want to vote "No" to get their own back."

The referendum in the Netherlands is only consultative - parliament has the final say on the constitution. But most politicians accept that they cannot simply ignore the will of the people as long as turnout is reasonably respectable.

A "No" vote here would not be as big a shock to the European political system as a "No" in France. But this is another founder member of the European Union, where serious misgivings have bubbled to the surface.

"We have to take up the challenge," Mr Balkenende declared, "We have to fight for it."

He will know soon enough whether he has left it too late.


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