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Europe

Dutch Appear Ready to Reject EU Charter

Only days after the French shocked Europe by rejecting the EU constitution, the charter looked set to take another blow on Wednesday as the Dutch voters decide their own referendum.

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Are the Dutch pedaling toward Nee?

The negative result of the French referendum will seriously influence the Dutch, according to Arjen Nijeboer, Secretary General of the Amsterdam think-tank "Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe."

"Commentators believe the effect will be quite substantial and that many 'yes' votes will stay at home because they are not motivated enough to vote and that the turnout will be lower," he said. "But 'no' votes will get a boost from the French referendum. The effect will be that the 'no' voters will turn out more massively."

Referendum in den Niederlanden

A tram painted with signs urging the Dutch public to vote in the referendum

Indeed, a new opinion poll showed the Netherlands was likely to reject the treaty on Wednesday by an even bigger majority than the 10-percentage-point margin in France on Sunday.

"It would be a miracle if a majority of the Dutch population say 'yes' tomorrow," Dutch pollster Maurice de Hond told Reuters.

Crumbling support

Such forecasts have Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende worried. He warned that the Dutch should not take the lead from the French, and has urged citizens to decide for themselves.

EU Verfassung Niederlande

Handing out flyers to inform people about the EU constitution, in The Hague

Support for the European Union in the Netherlands, like France one of the bloc's six founding members, was traditionally strong but has taken a knock in recent years. Balkenende's center-right government is deeply unpopular as public disquiet about immigration and security has been compounded by sluggish economic growth, rising unemployment and budget cuts.

Like in France, there are several different reasons for Dutch voters to reject the constitution -- though these reasons may have little to do with the document itself.

Fear of change

Many believe the pace of change is too fast, with too many new countries being admitted too quickly, or fear bigger countries like Germany could dominate the European Union. Others oppose the possible inclusion of Turkey, or are bothered by price hikes that have occurred since the introduction of the euro currency in 2002, or fear a loss of national identity.

The EU's first constitution sets new rules for the Union designed to make decision-making easier after it took in 10 new members last year, mostly from eastern Europe, but it requires the backing of all 25 member states to go into force.

A background to the current debate is whether such a decision should be put up for direct referendum or if elected politicians (as is the case in Germany where the Bundestag voted to approve the constitution) should make the decision on behalf of the people.

Nine countries representing nearly half the EU's 454 million citizens have already approved the constitution.

A vote on nothing?

The fact that all countries aren't giving their citizens a direct voice is putting undue pressure on those who are, Nijeboer said. "The Dutch are now being pressured to say "yes", because otherwise they will hold up the whole EU, and that’s not a real argument for or against a constitution."

While the vote on Wednesday is not binding, Dutch legislators have promised to respect the result if turnout exceeds thirty percent.

Some commentators have said that following the rejection of the European constitution by the French, the Dutch will be voting on something that no longer exists.

Nijeboer refutes that notion, however. "The constitution says clearly that if 80 percent of the countries can ratify the constitution in two years time, a political solution can be found for the other five countries who may have voted against."

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