THE HAGUE (AFP) â€” Dutch voters fired a second shot to the heart of the European project Wednesday, rejecting the first-ever EU constitution after a campaign that exposed deep divisions over the direction of Europe.
Projections based on more than half the ballots cast in the referendum showed 62.6 per cent of voters in the Netherlands had rejected the treaty, ignoring calls by most parties to support the text, the ANP national news agency said.
Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said he was “disappointed” by the result but promised to honour the outcome.
“It is a clear outcome. Of course I am very disappointed,” he told reporters.
“The government will respect the vote,” he said.
The stinging defeat, three days after nearly 55 per cent of people in France also voted it down, is a second, potentially fatal blow to a treaty cherished by EU officials but viewed warily by much of the continent’s population.
Turnout was 63.9 per cent, according to the projections.
Although the referendum is not binding on the government, it had pledged to respect the result if turnout was at least 30 per cent.
The latest setback in another of the European Union’s six founding members deepens the crisis among EU leaders who say the treaty would harmonise how the bloc is run and ensure long-term economic and social progress.
Balkenende said the process of ratifying the treaty should continue in the rest of Europe “to know where each country stands.”
His call was echoed by the EU’s Luxembourg presidency and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
In contrast to the shocked mood in much of Europe, Dutch far-right legislators were jubilant after their vigorous “no” campaign.
“I had not expected this massive turnout. I am proud of the Dutch people,” populist Geert Wilders, who defected from the Liberals to form his eponymous far-right party with one seat in parliament, told NOS television.
“The Cabinet should step down. The vote shows the immense gap between society and politics,” he added.
Most parties have already said they would not demand a government resignation over the referendum’s outcome.
A poll by the Interview-NSS bureau carried out on the day of the vote showed that 58 per cent of Dutch voters did not believe the “no” vote should force the government to step down.
Earlier Wednesday European Commission chief, Jose Manuel Barroso, warned any countries thinking of abandoning the constitution not to be hasty ahead of a June 16-17 European Union summit in Brussels.
“It will not be wise before the (EU summit) for leaders of EU member states to come with new initiatives or unilateral decisions that could make it more difficult to reach a consensus,” he said.
In the wake of the French vote, eurosceptic British media were already citing senior government sources as saying London could call off its plans for a referendum.
The constitution, which has already been ratified by nine countries, aims to streamline decision-making in the bloc following its historic enlargement last year, when 10 mostly ex-communist countries joined.
In the Netherlands, analysts agreed the Dutch “no” vote was not a rejection of European integration but a warning about its pace, coupled with a sense of disillusionment with politics in general.
“I voted no because I don’t trust the government,” a 65-year-old Amsterdam resident, who refused to give his name, told AFP.
He said he was also unhappy about EU enlargement last year.
“In the Netherlands, more than 40 per cent of the people think that Europe is moving too fast with the euro and enlargement with eastern European countries followed by Turkey,” said Maurice de Hond, director of one of the main polling institutes in the Netherlands.
The “no” vote against the treaty was telling politicians: “Stop and listen to us,” he said.
Surveys also show that the Dutch fear a rapidly expanding EU could swallow up their nation and that focusing power in Brussels could eventually force the Dutch to revise liberal laws on cannabis, same-sex marriages and euthanasia.
“This is a free country here,” Soraya, a prostitute in Amsterdam’s red light district told AFP, referring to legalised prostitution in the Netherlands. “We don’t want Europe to come and change that.”
Balkenende’s centre-right coalition has approval ratings of only 19 per cent, but while heads have rolled in France where the prime minister was replaced after Sunday’s defeat there, observers say there will be no political fallout in the Netherlands.
Here, it was the Dutch parliament that pushed for a referendum against the wishes of the government, which had wanted the assembly â€” where more than 80 per cent of lawmakers favour the treaty â€” to decide.