No Dutch referendum on EU
But the decision did not come easily
BY RNW POLITICAL EDITOR JOHN TYLER Radio Netherlands
The Dutch government has decided not to hold a referendum on the latest European Union treaty. The so-called Reform Treaty was agreed upon in June by representatives of the 27 member states. It is meant to replace the EU constitution which failed after Dutch and French voters rejected it in referendums in 2005.
The decision means the Reform Treaty will be sent to the Dutch parliament, where it is expected to be approved by a wide majority.
The cabinet's decision to scrap the referendum did not come easily. For the second week in a row, Friday's cabinet meeting dragged on later than usual as ministers debated the issue of holding a referendum.
Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and his Christian Democrat Party are emphatically opposed to holding a referendum. They say the Reform Treaty does not change enough about the EU to warrant a popular vote.
Labour's tricky position
The second largest party in the coalition, the Labour Party, finds itself in a tricky position. In last year's election campaign, the party called for another referendum if or when the EU came forward with a treaty similar to the last one. But Labour was forced to compromise in its negotiations on a coalition accord with the Christian Democrats. The issue of a referendum was left out of the accord altogether, postponing the inevitable clash between the two main governing parties.
Until now. The intervening months have only served to harden Prime Minister Balkenende's stance against a referendum. He was caught by surprise two years ago when the Dutch public rejected the EU constitution. The Netherlands had been involved in the European project from the beginning, and Balkenende had wanted to solidify the country's place in the core of the European Union. When the Dutch public said, "no, thanks" , it was a particularly hard blow for the prime minister.
The new Reform Treaty
So Mr Balkenende entered negotiations for the new EU treaty determined to eliminate all elements of a constitution. And indeed, the new Reform Treaty no longer includes a president of the EU or an anthem, and national governments retain full sovereignty in areas such as defence and foreign policy. The changes were enough to convince the Council of State, the government's highest advisory body, that the treaty was no longer constitutional in nature, and therefore a referendum was not necessary. The council published its conclusions last week, whereupon the Prime Minister felt sufficiently confident to bring the question to the cabinet.
But the opposition parties, and many Labour Party members, are not convinced. They say most aspects of the Reform Treaty were taken word for word from the constitution. To them, it looks like the cabinet wants to approve a treaty that has already been rejected by the voters.
Similar to two years ago, there appears to be a large gulf between the Dutch political establishment and the population. The government has allegedly conducted a secret poll showing that only 47 percent of the public would approve the Reform Treaty.
Still a role for parliament
Parliament can still vote to overturn the government's decision. Such a bill has already been introduced in the lower house, and it may indeed get majority support. But when the bill moves over to the upper chamber, it is almost sure to fail. Forty-one of the seventy-five members are solidly against holding a referendum.
If parliament does not manage to force the government's hand, Prime Minister Balkenende will once again be able to enter the halls of the EU with his head held high. But it comes at a cost. His coalition partner, the Labour Party, emerges from this debate ever more divided. And the Dutch public is reinforced in the feeling that their representatives do not take them seriously.