The Dutch 'no' is a 'yes': Erik Wesselius interviewed

Oscar Reyes
31 May 2005

openDemocracy: What are your main objections to the constitutional treaty that the French and Dutch are voting on this week?

Erik Wesselius: We have three main objections. The first is the lack of democracy. The convention formed to draft the new treaty would supposedly allow for a more open process for negotiation, give it greater weight and more legitimacy. The convention was an appointed body, far from the elected constituent assemblies that normally draft constitutions. So from the outset, the process of negotiating the constitution was not democratic.

The constitution is terribly long and unreadable – a text of 482 pages in Dutch, with more than 400 extra pages of appendices, comments and declarations. As for its content, there’s very little progress in terms of democratic accountability and in some respects it’s even a step back. For example, new positions are created, like the “President of the Council”, which are not directly accountable to any parliament. This is a very dangerous kind of constitutional arrangement.

The EU currently has a fundamental democratic deficit. The European Parliament has no genuine right of legislative initiative, which means that it has to rely on the unelected, and largely unaccountable, European Commission to draft and propose potential legislation. The parliament cannot dismiss individual members of the commission but can only recall it as a whole, and then only after voting by a two-thirds majority. This means that the EU has an executive branch that is substantially unaccountable to the elected representatives of the people.

The second problem is the neo-liberal character of the constitution – enshrined in parts one and three, which state that the main objective of the EU is to create an open market. There is also some nice language about full employment and promoting sustainable development; but the policy areas elaborated in part three tell a different story.

Also in openDemocracy on the Dutch debate, Gwyn Prins writes on “The end of the European Union”

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This whole neo-liberal orientation is also very problematic from a democratic standpoint. The constitution is an attempt to fix some basic political choices for decades to come. As Giscard d’Estaing himself said: “this is a document for the next forty years”. No other constitution in the world does this, although the Soviet constitution did something similar by advocating collectivisation. But it’s clearly very problematic to give specific policy choices a constitutional basis.

The third problem is that the constitution confirms and strengthens the already existing tendency towards EU militarisation. For example, article I-41 states that “Member States shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities.” Defendants of the treaty say that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to spend more money each year: working together would also improve our capabilities. But the working group preparing the chapters on defence policy was composed of diplomats, former generals and representatives of the European defence industry; they have a clear interest in increasing military spending within the EU to expand their businesses.

openDemocracy: Many people would argue that EU militarisation is no bad thing because it could help Europe become a counterweight to the United States “hyperpower”. How do you answer this?

Erik Wesselius: In the Netherlands, it is mainly the left-wing supporters of the constitution who argue that Europe could become a counter-power to the US. Those in the centre or on the right who support the constitution argue that it is very important for Europe to work closely with the US and not become its military competitor. The latter view is more or less enshrined in the constitution; so while some independent military capacity is being developed it will be in close collaboration with Nato.

On a more general level I don’t think it’s a good strategy for the EU to become another US-style superpower. There are other ways to deal with international tensions that do not rely solely on the build-up of military forces.

A related pro-constitution argument focuses on issues of peace in Europe. The Dutch government suggests that the constitution will increase security against terrorism, though it doesn’t explain what this means. More generally, they argue that the EU has been built to transcend old enmities in Europe. This is a good argument for European political co-operation, which I fully support, but it is no argument for the constitution.

openDemocracy: There are obviously very different ways of saying “no” to the constitution. What are the different aspects of the Dutch “no” campaign?

Erik Wesselius: The no camp is quite diverse. The left is a major component but not the only one. You also have the “ultraliberals”, who claim that the constitution is creating a European Union superstate, which they oppose because they want a minimal state. But they are quite marginal.

Then you have the fundamentalist Christians, very small Calvinist parties which are against the constitution because they believe in sovereignty coming from God. This argument is fairly traditional, conservative, although not necessarily xenophobic.

Finally, you have xenophobic tendencies, the people who are afraid of EU enlargement, in particular to Turkey. Anti-Muslim feelings in the Netherlands will be reflected in some of the no vote, especially after the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a young man of Moroccan origin. This xenophobic component is also marginal, I believe.

There is only one politician who is playing the anti-Muslim card – Geert Wilders, who created his own party after splitting from the Liberals on the question of Turkey. He wants to replicate the success of Pim Fortuyn but it doesn’t seem that he will manage it.

On the eve of the vote, I think there are two major reasons that will lead people to vote no. First, the frustration and distrust generated by the introduction of the euro. We were told that everything would get cheaper when the euro was introduced, and in reality everything became more expensive.

Second, opposition to the current Christian Democrat and Liberal government. It is following quite a strong neo-liberal agenda by trying to reform the pensions system, creating a much harsher regime for unemployed people, wanting to abolish subsidies for social housing and liberalising the social housing sector. According to opinions polls, the government currently commands the support of just 19% of the population.

openDemocracy: What would be your priorities in the event of a “no” vote?

Erik Wesselius: A “no” vote, such as that advocated by the Comité Grondwet Nee would be a big blow to the neo-liberal EU project, but in the Netherlands there’s not enough political capital to really take it much further at this stage. I think we should use our victory, if it comes, to build and strengthen a movement similar to what exists in France.

We should also lay the foundations for greater international cooperation and take time to develop our alternative project for Europe. We will see then how good we are at grabbing the opportunity and shaping it, creatively, to involve a lot of people in the construction of another Europe. Of course, the forces behind the construction of the current Europe will also have their emergency plans.

Further Links
The EU Constitution (pdf)
Reader-friendly EU Constitution
A brief history of the EU
Yes Campaign
No Campaign
EU website
European Voice
E! Sharp

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