Wednesday, October 27, 2004

A tale of two referendums

The Netherlands is one of the very few countries in the world that has never had a referendum. It will do next March or April on the EU Constitution and there are worries aplenty.

On the surface, what could possibly disturb the Dutch political consensus – quite self-righteous but pleasant with it, fairly successful and certainly European minded. Surely, they will vote for the Constitution.

It seems there may be some doubt on the subject. For one thing there are welfare reforms being pushed through in the Netherlands as in numerous other Continental countries. This makes the right of centre government somewhat unpopular. Then there is the worry about Turkey’s membership of the EU, though one can’t help feeling that the media over-eggs that one. The whole problems is so far in the future that few people can possibly care about it now.

Above all, there is the now familiar dissatisfaction with the political establishment, which showed itself most clearly in the 2002 election when the liberal but anti-immigration Pim Fortuyn’s party won several seats in the parliament, despite its founder’s assassination by a somewhat deranged green activist.

In other words, even the Dutch electorate is unpredictable. Of course, the political establishment insists that “referendums are not necessarily about the central issue but might be a judgement on other matters”. Indeed so, but, in many ways the whole debate about the Constitution, its creation and content have come to crystallize the problems with a political class that is ever more distant from the people who ought to be providing its power base.

Meanwhile Spain, who will hold the first referendum on February 26, has kicked off the yes campaign with the rather odd slogan of “Being First with Europe”. Spain, unlike other member states, feels it has done well out of the EU and her people are, by and large, europhile. The main parties support the adoption of the Constitution, more or less, though Aznar’s Popular Party had tried to win a better voting position.

Other parties have some reservations as well, and the United Left have adopted the slogan of “Europe Yes – but not this way”. (A little like our own No campaign.)

So far, The EU’s popularity has stood high in Spain. According to the latest eurobarometer poll, 87 per cent of the population see themselves as European citizens and 85 per cent think that the EU has been good for Spain. And so it has. The crunch may come during the next budget talks. Until now, Spain has managed to hang on to all the various subsidies it has extracted from the EU over the years. But Spain has been a member for 18 years and is deemed to be a huge success. There are ten new members that are considerably poorer. Why is “successful” Spain still getting such a large share of the hand-outs?

Another problem may well be brought by the Socialist government on itself. Few if any in the country know what is in the Constitution, but ministers think that Spain has now come of age and her people should know what it is they are going to vote about. Those ministers might find their calculations upset. The people may not like what they read in that Constitution.

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