Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Letter from Limburg

Don't ask the Dutch

It came as real shock to our lords and masters in "The Hague" when we voted "No" to the referendum in 2005. In many ways it was a punishment vote, rubbing our politicians' faces in the fact that, like in so many other countries, there is a yawning chasm between the people and those in power. There was no referendum over the euro, and yet there we were being asked to vote on a European constitution. I don't think many of us really understood the issues, much less cared; but the general feeling of alienation and distrust was not helped by a really aggressive 'yes' campaign that warned us we would become "the Switzerland of Europe" if we didn't vote 'yes'.

We've done the rounds again this time, with Timmermans (Secretary of State for European Affairs) warned us in May this year that if we said 'no' again none of the other 26 EU countries would ever listen to our objections again. This wasn't a forewarning of a referendum, as he quickly pointed out in a qualifying statement a few days later that it didn't matter who decided, Parliament or the people; either way a 'no' would be tantamount to exile to Siberia.

During the last elections, the Socialist Party (SP) and the Labour Party (PvdA) took a stand and made it a manifesto issue that they would insist on another referendum when the constitution came back for a second time. The PvdA subsequently backed off, and in return for being included in the coalition government (pushing out the SP, who had stormed into popularity) agreed that a referendum would only be called if there were "constitutional elements" in the new constitution.

Timmermans and his European colleagues went back to drawing board to produce, in the words of Timmermans, 'a treaty that must be significantly different from the old Constitutional Treaty, not just in form, but also in its content'. The new (not constitutional) treaty duly arrived, and we were assured by Timmermans that the new treaty had 'no constitutional pretensions' and contained no constitutional aspects, so no referendum would be needed. When challenged by Open Forum that the new treaty is 95% the same as the old treaty, the response was scathing ... apparently, Timmerman's DNA is 99% the same as the gorilla Bokito that recently escaped from its cage in Rotterdam zoo and mauled a spectator, but that 1% difference makes him very happy. I assume we are supposed to be even happier about the 5% difference in the treaty ...

The cabinet passed the new treaty to the Raad van Staat (our version of the Privy Council, staffed by non-elected lawyers, academics and industrialists whose task is to advise the government on constitutional issues) who, surprisingly, have seemingly (the judgement is secret until the government has made its decision) decided that all the constitutional elements have been removed and there is therefore no need for the government to call a referendum. That will no doubt make the government very happy as the leading CDA party have been always been opposed to referenda. After all, in a country where something like 90% of those in power are not elected, why ask the people?

The Raad van Staat judgement will not make any difference though, we all realise that the government was never going to allow a referendum. Our eyes instead were looking to Parliament to submit a so-called "initiative law" calling for a referendum (which is how the first referendum was forced through). The PvdA, SP, PVV, GroenLinks and D66 parties together have a clear majority, so there was every hope; every hope that was until it was pointed out that an initiative law has to make it through the upper house, where the CDA, ChristenUnie and VVD senators are almost certain to block it.

Budget Day

Today was Budget Day; 6 million euro extra for 'animal welfare', 2.5 million for 'homo emancipation', 20 million extra for 'global human rights', an increase in the EU contribution to 7 billion euro, and a nice 4% pay increase for the Queen (she will now get 26 times the average Dutch pre-tax income). Put that against more tax on beer, cigarettes, diesel fuel, LPG fuel, an environment tax on air tickets, an increase in VAT to 20%, and a lot of other measures aimed at reducing the national debt and "preparing us for the additional financial burden of the aging population". This will certainly not have helped to close the gap between government and 'electorate', so when the government announces its decision on a referendum (mooted for Friday), it will come as no surprise that there won't be one; the last thing the government wants is another punishment "no" vote.


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