Dutch apathy deals another blow to EU poll

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The Independent Online

With French opinion polls predicting a "no" vote in next month's referendum on the European constitution, "yes" campaigners in the Netherlands face a separate battle in their poll: against massive apathy.

With French opinion polls predicting a "no" vote in next month's referendum on the European constitution, "yes" campaigners in the Netherlands face a separate battle in their poll: against massive apathy.

Despite an official campaign launch this week of the Netherlands' first referendum for two centuries, the 480-page constitutional text has inspired almost no debate. Polling evidence is mixed but to the government's alarm, an Interview-NSS/Nova survey suggested 66 per cent of voters would stay at home instead of casting a ballot.

That research put backing for the treaty at 11 per cent, as opposed to 8 per cent for the "no", though another Maurice De Hond/NOS poll this week suggests that 30 per cent are in favour, 38 per cent against, and 32 per cent don't know.

The Netherlands which, like France, is a founder member of the EU, is due to go to the polls on 1 June, just three days after the French hold their plebiscite. Confronted by this apathy, the Dutch government admitted that it even considered a plan to abandon the referendum if the French say no, but rejected the idea.

In theory it would take just one country to refuse to ratify the treaty to kill off its prospects of becoming law, and many believe that a French no would render a Dutch poll irrelevant.

But calling off the referendum at such short notice would be technically impossible, particularly since the initiative to consult the voters was taken by the parliament, rather than ministers. However, the centre-right party of the Prime Minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende, has said that a minimum 30 per cent turnout is needed for the result to be considered valid.

Most politicians agree that supporters of the constitution, which include most of the big political parties, have proved slow off the mark in campaigning.

Lousewies van der Laan, deputy leader of the D66 social liberal party and a supporter of the constitution, said: "What worries me is that the government is doing nothing, the business community is doing nothing. Everybody is waiting for everybody else, which means there is no debate.The no campaign are getting a huge platform. They are well-organised and have lots of money, and the yes campaigners are lagging. Often if you can define the terms of a referendum, you tend to win it."

With the government's popularity waning, it has been cautious about public campaigning, fearing that it could provoke a protest vote from those disgruntled with the government's performance.

Ministers are on the defensive on a series of issues, including the sluggish pace of economic growth, spending cuts, immigration and Turkey's bid to join the EU.

Once one of the most dependably pro-integrationist countries in Europe, the Netherlands has become notably more sceptical. Political allegiances have also proved volatile after the murder of the anti-immigration campaigner Pim Fortuyn, and the more recent assassination of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh. A prominent populist and anti-immigration campaigner, Geert Wilders, plans to campaign against the constitution.

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