EUROPEAN flags flutter in the freezing wind outside the bars in the marketplace, shops do brisk business in euros and the monument of metal Euro stars stretches skyward above the slogan: “We must move beyond nation states.”
Maastricht, the small Dutch town on the borders of Belgium and Germany where the treaty that gave birth to the euro was signed, displays its European credentials proudly.
But, while the symbols remain in place, a strange thing is happening to the people who live here: they are starting to sound Eurosceptic.
“It’s just too bureaucratic, too big. The EU and the people are too far apart,” a grey-haired woman said as she scuttled along the cobbled pedestrian streets, lined with traditional Dutch gabled houses. “It gets bigger, bigger, bigger.”
The Netherlands, one of the six founding members of the European Union and currently holder of the EU presidency, has always taken pride in being a good European, scoring higher than any other country, apart from Luxembourg, in terms of public support for the EU. It is proud to have hosted the Treaty of Maastricht, which created the last great European project, the single currency. But now, in an extraordinary about-turn, the Netherlands may scupper the next great EU project, the European constitution.
The Government has announced that a referendum on the constitution will take place on June 1. It will be the first time that Dutch citizens are asked what they think of the EU.
While international attention has been focused on the French referendum, just three days earlier on May 29, the Dutch are far more likely to slam on the brakes of the constitutional juggernaut. Polls in France still show a majority in favour of the constitution, but the Government in The Hague has been shocked to find that a majority of its citizens are opposed, and by no small margin.
A recent poll was telling. It showed that 42 per cent of Dutch would choose to vote “no”, against 28 per cent who plan to vote “yes”. The Netherlands is the only founding member of the EU in which opinion polls suggest that the constitution will be rejected.
Outside a café in the main square in Maastricht, a troupe of actors enjoying a midmorning rest recount their grievances against the Union. Oda Selbos, with flowing red hair, said: “The euro is a big issue. Everything has doubled in price. When you went to Spain, it was nice to have a different currency. I want to have my guilder back.”
Frederick Brom declared that he was opposed to the EU harmonising everything. “In the EU, everything becomes the same, and that’s a real pity. When I go to France, I want to eat French cheese made by a farmer in his cellar, but with hygiene standards, everything becomes the same.”
The Dutch also have particular financial grievances about the EU, because they contribute more per capita than any other country. The Government is angry that, while it has imposed strict controls on public borrowing to adhere to the bloc’s Stability and Growth Pact, which underpins the euro, France and Germany broke the rules, apparently with impunity.
Voters also have concerns about the economic impact of the euro. Xavier Schilling, an insurance manager, said: “A lot of people in Holland at first thought the constitution was a good thing. Now they worry because the economy is not doing that well.”
There is widespread opposition to the European Commission’s decision to let Turkey join the EU, which would give 70 million Muslims the right to live and work in Western Europe. These fears are being given voice by the maverick politician Geert Wilders, whose opposition to radical Islam, Turkey and the constitution has propelled him ahead of the Government in the polls.
In a recent speech in Rotterdam, Mr Wilders said: “The political elite wants to admit Turkey to the Union, an Islamic land of millions, that will have an enormous influence on the federal superstate. Because of the new European constitution, Turkey will have more influence on Dutch legislation than the Netherlands itself. It can’t become crazier than this.”
The Government hopes that, with the Netherland’s two big neighbours—France and Germany—likely to ratify the constitution just before their own referendum, the Dutch will feel too isolated to reject it. They have launched a massive TV advertising campaign to get their message across.
But Maurice de Hond, the Netherlands’ most prominent pollster, said that the referendum on the constitution was likely to become a protest vote about the direction of the EU. “People are voting about everything but the constitution,” he said. “They are voting about the euro, about the ten new countries, about Turkey, about the Government. Turkey is a big issue and a much clearer issue than the constitution, which they have never read.”
In theory, the European constitution has to be ratified by all twenty-five EU member states, nine of which are having referendums. European leaders are now asking themselves what will happen if a country votes “no”. It is generally accepted that, if France says “no”, the constitution is effectively dead; and, if Britain says “no”, the UK will have to renegotiate its relationship with the EU.
But what if the Netherlands, always one of its biggest cheerleaders, says “no”? One Dutch politician said: “If Britain rejects the constitution, Britain has a problem. But, if the Netherlands rejects the constitution, then the constitution has a problem.”