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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Dutch argue over EU future
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News website, Amsterdam

'No' campaign poster in The Hague
Opinion polls put the 'No' camp well ahead

Long discussions in dimly-lit, smoke-filled rooms may well be the key to whether the Netherlands says "Ja" or "Nee" to the EU constitution.

However, this time it is not politicians doing the talking, but voters themselves, who have been taking part in an unprecedented national discussion about what they want from Europe.

Hundreds of debates have been organised in town halls and coffee-houses across the country to mark the first referendum in the Netherlands for more than 200 years.

"It's the first time for decades that Europe is being debated. We have had 50 years of integration by stealth, and now it's over," says Richard Wouters of the Green Left party, after a debate in Amsterdam's Royal Dutch Shipping (KHL) coffee-house.

This is the third debate he has taken part in, as a member of the panel, and he has the feeling that Dutch voters will not allow Europe to slip off the political agenda again.

Long-awaited debate

The evening's entertainment has been organised for people on the left of Dutch politics. There are two speakers against the constitution, one of them from the Socialist Party, and two in favour, including Mr Wouters.

Dutch quiz show based on EU constitution
The nation is gripped by the EU debate as never before
His main argument is that the constitution provides a better framework for Europe's public to influence and criticise EU policies they disagree with.

There is a relaxed atmosphere and lots of laughs. The denim-clad audience, drinking wine and coffee out of identical small glasses, loves it when someone puts a hostile question to the speakers and voices are briefly raised.

There is a lot of note-taking, and some of the audience occasionally consult copies of the constitution, as the speakers cite article after article to bolster their arguments.

Three hours later, one person in the audience of 80 says he has changed his mind, and will now vote "Yes".

Others say the debate has helped them to firm up their views, like artist Sigrid von Essel, who says the Dutch authorities failed to explain to her what the constitution says.

"I came because I am thinking of voting 'Yes' and I wanted more good reasons," she says.

QUICK GUIDE

"Actually I have heard lots of arguments on both sides - too many! - but the people on the 'Yes' side seem to me quieter and more thoughtful, so I think I will trust my instincts."

A local Green Party councillor, Fredrik Borias, meanwhile came to ask a question on a very specific point - will the constitution give the EU powers to force the Dutch government to live up to its environmental commitments, on things such as clean air?

He got mixed answers, but was left with a hunch that the government had too much room to wiggle and compromise, so he was going to vote "No".

French boost for 'No'

Neither of the speakers arguing in favour of the constitution has much faith that the referendum on Wednesday will deliver the result they want.

When you walk around giving out leaflets, most people think you are trying to sell a religion
Foppe de Vries, 'Yes' campaigner

Richard Wouters believes that after the French "No" vote on Sunday, and with polls suggesting a similar vote in the Netherlands, large numbers of Dutch "Yes" voters will simply stay at home.

His ally from the FNV Federation of Trade Unions, Marjoline Bulk, says her only hope now is that people will behave as they do in local elections and show allegiance to their "usual" party.

Both the country's main political parties - the Christian Democrats and the Labour Party - are in favour of a "Yes".

But almost everyone on the "Yes" and the "No" sides seems happy that the vote, and the discussion, is taking place.

DUTCH REFERENDUM
"Yes" camp
Christian Democrats (CDA), largest government party, plus coalition partners VVD and D66
Labour (PVDA) and Green Left opposition parties
"No" camp
Right-wing Pim Fortuyn party
Socialist Party
ChristienUnie and SGP, Christian parties
"The constitution started out as a very undemocratic project, but bit by bit it's opening up," says Daniel de Jongh of the left-wing Constitution No (Grondwetnee) campaign.

"Next time the people should be consulted at the beginning of the process, not the end."

Despite the discussion raging behind closed doors, and in parts of the media, outside on the streets of Amsterdam, there are few signs of political struggle.

"It's not the Dutch way of doing things. When you walk around giving out leaflets, most people think you are trying to sell a religion," says Foppe de Vries, a student working for the Better Europe foundation, which has been campaigning for a "Yes" vote.

"Canvassing is OK, but don't think about calling people by telephone to persuade them to vote - it would have the opposite effect."

His organisation started handing out herrings to get attention.

"I don't want to see another herring for at least two years," says Foppe, adding with relief that the supply of fish has now run out.




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