'No' camp ahead as Dutch prepare to have their say

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The Independent Online

The Netherlands, one of the EU's founder members and the nation where the Maastricht Treaty was signed, is poised to reject the European constitution in a referendum on Wednesday, opinion polls indicate.

The Netherlands, one of the EU's founder members and the nation where the Maastricht Treaty was signed, is poised to reject the European constitution in a referendum on Wednesday, opinion polls indicate.

Weekend voter surveys showed the "no" camp well ahead although the gap between the two sides appears to be narrowing slightly. There were fears that the French "no" vote could kill off any lingering hopes of securing a "yes"

"We Dutch must make up our own minds, just as we've always done and will continue to do," said Ben Bot, the Foreign Minister. The pollster Maurice de Hond said after France's rejection turnout in the referendum was likely to be low.

The Dutch have traditionally been loyal supporters of European integration, but attitudes have hardened in recent years as the country has been convulsed by rows over immigration and the murder of two critics of Islam.

Major political parties have backed the constitution but the "yes" campaign only came to life four weeks ago and has struggled to make an impact.

Treaty opponents have focused on the high per capita level of Dutch contributions to the EU as well as inflation following the introduction of the euro ­ though neither issue is addressed by the constitution.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende, defended the constitution in a televised debate, arguing that it "will bring more democracy" to Europe. "I hear the irritation out there over price rises after the introduction of the euro," he said. "But is that a question of the euro or of café owners who abused the situation to carry out a price increase?"

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