Dutch sign on Europe's wall

About the author
Theo Veenkamp was head of the Netherlands Agency for the Reception of Asylum–Seekers and head of strategy at the Dutch ministry of justice.

The most remarkable thing about the Dutch vote on the European constitution is not the actual result of the referendum – a decisive vote of 61.6% against the treaty and 38.4% in favour on a 62% turnout – but what it reveals about the febrile condition of Dutch society. What is so disturbing to many in and outside of Holland is that the “no” could have been just as well a “yes” – and the other way around. Again, the Dutch are surprising the world. After “good old Dutch tolerance”, now also “good old Dutch stability” seems to have gone out of the window – just like that.

Yet intriguingly, a recent and reliable internet opinion poll in which 150,000 Dutch participated shows a quite different picture, in three respects.

First, it found a strikingly large consensus about the type of society people want to live in: a place that allows you to work for living and not live for working, one with more solidarity than at present, and where newcomers are still welcome as long as they are properly integrated.

Second, it revealed an unexpected, widespread and realistic agreement about the type of world we live in and the new threats and opportunities (both from inside and outside) it presented.

Third, it registered a staggering near-unanimity (85%) about people’s lack of confidence in politics and government institutions to deal effectively with these opportunities and threats. (A telling detail: a sizeable majority of the civil servants who participated in the poll shared this view).

Also by Theo Veenkamp in openDemocracy:

People Flow: migration in Europe” (May 2003) (co-author)

After tolerance” (November 2004)

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The Dutch complex

If you combine these results with those of other recent research, a complex picture of the troubled relationship between the Dutch and their political elite emerges. The Dutch – international traders in goods and services for centuries – have a very long internationalist tradition and have developed over time sensitive antennae for what is really happening “out there”. (The difference in the amount of international news in Dutch traditional media – newspapers, radio and television – compared with the United Kingdom is tangible in this respect). It seems as if many Dutch people, today as in our “golden age”, develop in a direct and intuitive manner a realistic sense of what is changing and what is still to come in our world, and what these changes might mean.

This would today be an asset, as it has been in the past, if it were not for the fundamental change that has occurred in the relationship between the Dutch and their government. The widespread support for the post-second world war national social contract – to rebuild the country and create wealth and opportunity for its people – has withered away because (paradoxically enough) the project was completed successfully.

For Dutch citizens, this “success” contains many elements, emotional as well as material. Among others, it means: living in one of the wealthiest and best-organised countries in the world; being relatively happy; living increasingly hectic lifestyles that involve struggling with time to maintain wealth and participate in the good life; discovering that new sacrifices are necessary in order to maintain a trimmed welfare state; worrying about the future of the economy in a globalising word; worrying about growing ethnic pockets of poverty and isolation in the metropolitan areas; worrying about decreasing security; experiencing a gradual slipping away of control over one’s life; becoming more and more anxious about the world in which one’s children and grandchildren will grow up.

This complicated cocktail of mixed feeling is topped up with an equally complicated attitude towards the ruling establishment. On one side, sky-high demands on what the government should do to tackle the risks and grab the opportunities; on the other, almost total lack of confidence in the ability of the government to deliver.

It was this potentially explosive mix that was first skilfully tapped by Pim Fortuyn, the flamboyant publicist-turned-politician slain in May 2002; it is this same mix that produces so much volatility in voting behaviour on the European constitution in one of the founding nations of the European Union.

A union of diversities

Despite the referendum outcome, a large majority of people in the Netherlands still favours European integration. But their lack of confidence in both Dutch and European political institutions makes many uncertain how to vote. In addition, many feel that European developments are just going too fast. These factors combine with people’s uncertainty about the future of the next generations to increase their sense of losing control.

The idea of a “European Democratic Observatory” is elaborated in Theo Veenkamp, Tom Bentley and Alessandra Buonfino, “Toward a new European Commonwealth”, in The Democratic Papers: talking about democracy in Europe and beyond (British Council, Brussels, 2004)

Many politicians in Holland now blame themselves and their predecessors for not having educated their electorates on the meaning of European integration and what is happening in Brussels, but I doubt whether that would have made a large difference to the referendum outcome. The fermenting undercurrent of perceptions and feelings looking for political articulation seems too deeply rooted for that.

In the end the European Union can only be as strong as are the democracies of its member-states. France and the Netherlands can be seen to show that referenda are a powerful impulse to unruly democratic engagement. But the feelings and perceptions articulated through their campaigns reveal a profound gap between voters and political elites that is worrying for the future political stability of these countries and therefore of their democracies.

Each country within the European Union has its own specific history and political culture. But I am convinced that below these visible differences European citizens are already more united than we think in our anxieties and hopes. We all live in a transitional time that is difficult to understand. For affluent and indigent alike, old certainties are disappearing as rapidly as new uncertainties are emerging. The basic instinct of many ordinary citizens all over the expanding Europe – that what we gain by new policies, laws and regulations is being offset by what we lose in other ways – is a sound one and it should be taken very seriously.

Many all over the world are impressed by the European project and tell us how unique and inspiring we are. We, however, find ourselves only just at the beginning of an agonising reappraisal. The deep division of opinion revealed in France and the Netherlands is a clear sign of the fact that the European constitution has become the symbol both of a powerful dream and of an equally powerful conviction that the dream can never be realised if we continue as planned.

Five steps to Europe’s future

In this sense, the French and Dutch referenda results are a sign on Europe’s wall. They could lead to a substantial decrease of confidence in the European project, inside and outside Europe, with unwelcome consequences that include the stagnation and loss of direction of the European project itself. In other words, this is a major crisis for the European Union.

But it would be disastrous if the EU reacts to the crisis in its usual way: sit it out, talk it through and continue with a watered-down version of its original plans. Such an approach has worked well on many occasions in the past; employed now, it would fail to redress the lack of confidence of the many who have this week uttered either an emphatic “no” or a doubtful “yes”.

Every real crisis offers a chance that would never have arisen in more normal circumstances. In this case, the chance is to take some steps – simultaneously backwards and forwards – that together restore confidence, give direction and cater to the imagination of many.

These are five such steps the European Union could now take:

  • first, don’t wait too long before “taking your loss” and declaring the constitution dead; the alternative is a long, drawn-out process that waits for the last member-state to decide and allows distrust and stagnation to spread
  • second, decide as soon as possible on the equivalent of a set of “provisional administrative arrangements” for the EU that contain some of the more evident improvements in decision-making that were included in the constitution (and be absolutely clear that “provisional” means just that)
  • third, establish an independent “constitutional laboratory” whose task would be to design a real constitution of (say) ten-to-fifteen pages. This can serve as the foundation document of a European governance arrangement with two elements: it is constituted of strong, stable member-states, and it forms a clear entity of its own that is based on an optimal mix of defined internal and external authority and professional, innovative facilitating instruments. Allow for a period of ten years to develop, decide and implement.
  • fourth, launch a number of initiatives that make absolutely clear what Europe is all about and that will strongly promote the growth of Europe as a living entity. These might include: negotiating a European social contract for sustainable wealth, encouraging a zone of positive interdependence and mutual understanding reaching beyond continental Europe to its neighbouring regions; launching a “European awareness programme” that invites the creation of materials for a new, inclusive European narrative; constructing high-speed rail links between major European cities and their partners to east and south; establishing a volunteer reconstruction corps, open to qualified young people from all countries, to aid Europe’s capacity to resolve conflict and contribute to humanitarian development.
  • fifth, create a “European democratic observatory” – a kind of clearing-house for democratic renewal – to assist in identifying and understanding innovation in democratic practice, and to promote the spread of knowledge and capacity across the wider European region, at all levels of governance. This would be a convincing way of acknowledging the fact that both “old” and “new” democracies in the wider European region are vulnerable and in need of repair, renovation or even reconstruction.

 

The decisions of people in France and the Netherlands in the referenda on 29 May and 1 June 2005 are not exceptions but true representations of Europeans’ current experience of the political institutions and systems that govern them. The results should force us all to stop and think and find new ways to reconnect with each other: those like myself who are in favour of the European constitution, and those many who have lost confidence in the European future currently offered them.

The shared challenge now is find a language that can truthfully address Europe’s complicated pattern of thinking and feeling, and from it articulate a European dream that can one day lead to a document that opens with three mighty words: “We, the people ….”

 

Further Links

The EU Constitution

EU Constitution

A brief history of the EU

Yes Campaign

No Campaign

EU website

European Voice

EurActiv

E! Sharp