What now for Europe?

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The Independent Online

The Netherlands has delivered a crushing "no" vote on the European constitution and plunged the EU into a crisis of confidence unprecedented in almost five decades of European integration.

The Netherlands has delivered a crushing "no" vote on the European constitution and plunged the EU into a crisis of confidence unprecedented in almost five decades of European integration.

Dutch voters rejected the constitution last night with 62.6 per cent voting "no" and 37.4 per cent "yes" in a referendum, according to an exit poll. It was the second comprehensive rejection from a founder member of the EU in four days and has effectively killed off prospects of implementing the constitution in the near future and any hopes of a British referendum. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said that the result raises "profound" questions for Europe.

The Dutch voters delivered a dramatic rebuff to a European political leadership which had taken public support for granted. It comes after France's rejection on Sunday, the scale of which stunned Brussels and led to the French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, resigning.

Given the size of the projected "no" vote, which won by an even larger margin than the 10 per cent between the "no" and "yes" in France, Holland's vote seemed certain to precipitate a period of turbulence as the scale of the uprising against Europe's political establishment sinks in. Turnout was large, with 64 per cent of people said to have voted.

Accepting defeat, the Dutch premier, Jan-Peter Balkenende, described the vote as a "clear message" and said: "The Dutch people have spoken tonight. It is a clear result. Naturally I am very disappointed. We understand there were worries about the loss of sovereignty, the speed of European integration, our financial contributions [to the EU] and the loss of national identity."

Not only do the Netherlands and France now face domestic political turmoil, but the German government is reeling from a recent humiliation in regional elections and Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is in the middle of an acute political crisis.

Europe's leaders now fear a domino effect and opinion polls show the "no" vote growing even in Luxembourg - one of the most pro-European nations of all the 25 member states - which faces the next referendum, on 10 July. Meanwhile, a political storm is breaking out over the euro amid reports - strenuously denied - that Germany is about to blame the single currency for its chronic economic troubles and five million unemployed.

Urged on by Britain yesterday, the Czech Republic, which still has to put the constitution to a referendum, became the first country to call for the deadline for ratification - currently the end of 2006 - to be set back. That position, which would mean putting the constitution on ice, is backed by the UK and probably Poland where popular votes would almost certainly now be lost. This would scupper a plan to press on with ratification if 20 of the 25 member states ratify the constitution. The hope is that the rest would be pressured into changing their minds.

But the Czechs' suggestion provoked an instant row, revealing the scale of disagreement among EU leaders about how to proceed. The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, rejected the idea of a delay, urging member states not to take "unilateral decisions" before the 16 June summit.

Tony Blair will now hold emergency talks with EU leaders in the wake of the rejection to discuss the crisis which will overshadow Britain's six-month presidency. The Prime Minister is on holiday in Tuscany until the weekend but senior officials said he would consult EU leaders by telephone over the next 48 hours.

Mr Blair is now ready to turn the British presidency into a personal campaign to lead Europe out of its impasse. He is apparently ready to confront M. Chirac over the need for economic change. M. Chirac said on Tuesday night he would not accept Anglo-Saxon economic reforms. Mr Straw will also make a statement to Parliament on Monday.

The former European commissioner Lord Patten fuelled Tory Eurosceptic fears that changes would be introduced through the back door. He said a number of reforms were still needed and they could happen without a treaty renegotiation.

Lord Patten said: "We've made considerable progress in the last few years - not all those institutional changes require treaty change. But to say that there is nothing that can be done now because of the vote in France is completely preposterous."

Well before the polling booths closed most "yes" supporters were resigned to losing after a campaign in which voters vented frustration with the government and the direction of the EU. Rather than offering a verdict on the constitution, the electorate appeared to be protesting about inflation following the introduction of the euro, unease about last year's enlargement of the EU to include 10 new member states, and the prospect of Turkey starting EU membership talks.

Yesterday's vote, called by the Dutch parliament, was consultative rather than binding. But most political parties said they would accept the verdict providing there was a turnout of at least 30 per cent. In the event that total was well exceeded.

The Dutch "no" leaves the EU without a credible plan B and will turn a summit of EU heads of government, scheduled for 16 June, into a crisis meeting. Nine nations have already ratified the constitution, including Spain - the only country to do so with a successful referendum so far. Most EU countries want to push ahead with the ratification process then review the situation when all 25 nations have spoken.

Dutch Referendum

No 62%

Yes 38%

Provisional final result

'What now for Europe' in languages of the EU

* French: Où va l'Europe maintenant?

* German: Was jetzt, Europa?

* Dutch: Wat nu voor Europa?

* Finnish: Entä nyt, Eurooppa?

* Spanish: Qué le espera ahora a Europa?

* Danish: Hvad nu for Europa?

* Swedish: Vad nu för Europa?

* Czech: Co nyni s Evropou?

* Slovak: Co teraz s Europou?

* Hungarian: Hogyan tovább, Európa?

* Estonian: Kuidas edasi, Euroopa?

* Lithuanian: Europa - kas toliau?

* Polish: Co Dalej z Europa?

* Slovene: Kaj sedaj z Europo?

* Maltese: Hu issa se jigri fl'Europa?

* Portuguese: E agora Europa?

* Italian: Che desso per l'Europa?

* Latvian: Ko nu, Eiropa?