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Europe

Constitutional Storm Clouds Over Europe

The people of France dealt a severe blow to Europe on Sunday when they voted against the EU constitution. Now attention is focused on the Netherlands, where a referendum could seal the fate of the treaty.

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Is the EU headed for dark days?

In his final appeal to the people of the Netherlands ahead of today's ballot, the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenede told them a yes vote is imperative to the get the economy moving forward.

But whether his words will ring loudly enough in voters ears will not become clear until later tonight when the votes have been counted. Polls suggested that up to 60 percent of Dutch voters were likely to shun the constitution, for much the same reasons which drove the French people to unify against it: opposition to EU enlargement, fear of loss of identity and a dissatisfaction with their own center-right government.

EU-Referendum Jan Peter Balkenende Wahlurne Niederlande

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende in the ballot box

Balkenende, whose own popularity is at an all-time low of just 19 percent, moved to reassure voters that the treaty would not interfere with their national identity. "The Netherlands will keep its own role and its own responsibility in Europe," he said, adding that the future of the country lay with the EU.

Dutch ballot not binding

Unlike in France, the vote in the Netherlands is not binding, and must be subsequently ratified by parliament. However, most political parties have already said they will respect a "No" vote provided that voter turnout is above 30 percent. Polls predict that half of those eligible to vote will do so.

So what happens if the Dutch people do indeed follow the French lead and slam the treaty? The majority of EU leaders responded to Sunday's "Non" saddened but stoic, claiming that the ratification process should still continue. But if the Netherlands turns out the same result, such optimism would be crushed.

Frankreich Referendum über die EU-Verfassung: Ja oder Nein?

France's "No" campaigners emerged victorious

Some Euroskeptics have already suggested that a string of rejections could herald the union's eventual downfall. While such a worse-case scenario is a long way from any kind of reality, there is no doubt that the fallout from the French vote extends beyond its own national boundaries,

where the ballot result led to the almost immediate resignation of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. President Jacques Chirac replaced him with former Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Far-reaching fallout

Jan Peter Balkenende has made it clear that he will not be following in Raffarin's footsteps should Wednesday's referendum echo the sentiment of the French. Although a negative vote would be a further indication of his failing popularity, it would also be a blow to opposition parties who are campaigning with the government for a "Yes".

Newspapers in Britain have made much of thus far unconfirmed reports that a "No" vote in the Netherlands would prompt Prime Minister Tony Blair to call off the UK referendum planned for the early part of next year.

Tony Blair in Brüssel

Waiting game for Tony Blair

Britain is renowned in the Union for its Euroskeptic stance, and there is little to suggest that Tony Blair would succeed in steering his people towards ratifying the constitution in a popular vote. But in calling it off altogether, he would likely drive the final nail into the charter's coffin.

Former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has warned that Europe has to stay calm in the face of the current developments, saying the setback would only become a catastrophe if Europe were to give up.

He told the Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper that "Europe will go on. It is an important sign to the world outside Europe. EU leaders must recognise that Europe's prospects in the age of globalisation have a global significance."

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