Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Who would be prime minister?

The Dutch political élite is now in a flat spin as opinion polls show an increasing lead for the "no" camp. A survey by pollster Maurice de Hond publicised on Saturday showed an increase from 40 to 42 percent for "nee" campaigners, while supporters of the EU constitution lost one point to 38 percent.

As a result, ministers have been forced to abandon plans for a short, sharp campaign and instead have stepped up their efforts to win backing for the constitution. With just three weeks left until the vote, they plan a series of television and newspaper interviews amid criticism that mainstream politicians have not done enough to shore up support for the constitution.

In Brussels there has been growing dismay at the almost complete lack of a 'yes' campaign in the Netherlands. "I think it is more than likely they will say 'no'", said one gloomy EU commissioner.

This is stacking up as a nightmare for Blair as the French "yes" camp looks increasingly secure.

Among the latest polls, a CSA survey published today in Le Parisien newspaper conducted on 7-9 May showed 51 percent of 1,006 people backing the constitution against 49 percent "non". A CSA poll on 30 April 30 to 2 May showed the same outcome and a TNS-Sofres survey conducted 7-8 May had 52 percent supporting the constitution against 48 percent, the same result as one conducted April 27-28.

While a French "non" might be enough to torpedo the constitution, the feeling is that The Netherlands could be brow-beaten into submission on a second referendum, leaving Blair with no excuse to abandon the British referendum. That would put him in the position - with the UK holding the EU presidency - of having to broker a deal to bring the Dutch back into the fold.

At the same time, likely as not, he will be holding the ring on what promises to be an increasingly bitter fight over the EU budget. Blair will be trying to find the money to keep the recipient states happy while trying to square off Germany and The Netherlands, neither of whom are prepared to pay more, and at the same time defending the British rebate.

During all this time, he will also be seeking to convince a sceptic British public to support the constitution in the forthcoming referendum, as well as fending off contenders for his own job. As the problems crowd around him, Blair may well be wondering why he sought to win the election for Zanu New Labour.

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