Dutch Reject European Charter 

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 2, 2005

THE HAGUE, June 1 -- Dutch voters rejected the proposed constitution for the European Union by a ratio of almost 2 to 1 Wednesday, a grave if predicted new setback for a campaign to grant broad, expanded powers to the 25-nation bloc that has grown to rival the United States in economic and political influence.

Jubilant opponents traded cheers and kisses as their 62 percent to 38 percent victory was announced on television Wednesday night, three days after French voters turned down the 200-plus-page document in a similar protest against the burgeoning size and cost of the union and their national government's domestic policies.

The two defeats left European leaders scrambling for ways to salvage the constitution. It was written in hopes of streamlining decision-making and giving the Brussels-based organization new say on issues as diverse as a common foreign policy and rules for buying vacation homes on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Each member country must approve the constitution if it is to take effect by late 2006. Unless the French and the Dutch decide to vote again and wind up reversing themselves -- events that seem unlikely given wide voting margins against the document -- it will not survive in its present form. Still, European leaders said they would press to continue the ratification process in hopes that the rest of the continent will line up in favor.

"Of course, I'm very disappointed," said Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who, like most elected leaders in the Netherlands, campaigned for the measure. Appearing on television to concede defeat shortly after the polls closed at 9 p.m., he promised to respect the results of the nonbinding vote and said he would not allow parliament to override it.

"The Dutch people have spoken," he said. "I will be telling my foreign colleagues that the Dutch 'no' must be heeded."

The national referendum was the first in Dutch history and drew a higher-than-predicted turnout of about 60 percent.

Like the French, many Dutch voters said in interviews that they were concerned the E.U. had grown too fast in recent years. They opposed giving more power to bureaucrats in Brussels to regulate everyday life across the continent. Others characterized their displeasure as a protest vote against the Dutch government, which has been hobbled in opinion polls by a weak economy and unpopular immigration policies.

"Europe is big now, and that's a good thing," said Peer van der Wonde, a 52-year-old artist and furniture designer, after he voted no at city hall in The Hague, the Netherlands' seat of government. "But we have to be careful. In the last 10 years, the people in Brussels have tried to minimize the input of regular people in democratic decisions."

Opposition leaders said they were angry that European officials still had not abandoned the constitution project. Geert Wilders, founder of an anti-immigration party bearing his name, called Balkenende "a sore loser" on Dutch television for insisting that other European countries be given the opportunity to vote on a charter that Wilders characterized as doomed.

"The prime minister has to go to Brussels and say, 'We do not agree with this,' " Wilders said. "The fact that he doesn't dare to say so is very sad. That's the reason why people are completely sick of politics."

Anticipating a Dutch rejection, European leaders said this week that they would decide their next move at a previously scheduled summit from June 16-17 in Brussels.

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