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Dutch rejection leaves EU constitution in `very deep coma'

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands—Dutch voters soundly defeated the proposed European Constitution on Wednesday, possibly killing the document after it was badly damaged by a similar vote Sunday in France.

Preliminary tallies showed the constitution was rejected by a margin of 62-38 percent, even stronger than France's 55-45 percent. Voter turnout in both countries was high. More than six in 10 of the Netherlands' 11 million voters went to the polls.

The voters have spoken, and "No means no," said Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, a strong supporter of the constitution.

The vote is nonbinding, but the major political parties have agreed to accept it.

To go into effect, the constitution has to be approved in all 25 nations that are members of the union. Approval can be by either popular or parliamentary vote.

The two defeats mean the constitution can't be adopted. Luxembourg and Denmark apparently plan to go ahead with their own referendums anyway in coming months.

"The treaty isn't dead, but it is in a very deep coma," said Sebastian Kurpas, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies, based in Brussels, Belgium. "The Dutch vote means it may not wake up."

Kurpas said the only hope left for the document might be voting out the politicians who support it, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Balkenende. Kurpas thinks much of the opposition is not to the constitution, but rather a protest vote over ineffective national governments.

"That might make it possible for this to be resurrected where it's now failed," he said. "Barring that, we're looking at trying to pick pieces of the treaty that might find favor—which might be the most likely scenario—or renegotiating the entire thing, which simply won't happen for at least another 10 years."

After voting, Maarten Lens, 25, said that even though he had supported the constitution, he hadn't found much in the document to get excited about.

"Not now, but it's going to happen, eventually," he said, adding that Europe will adopt a constitution someday, and the Netherlands will have more influence in the EU if it's been supportive.

Barry Vink, 28, disagreed. "I didn't see any reason to back it," he said.

The Netherlands and France were among the six charter members of the European unification effort, which began in the 1950s. The union was an idea born of World Wars I and II, based on a belief that closer economic, personal and political ties would make war less likely.

Both countries have opened their borders to trade, travel and immigration and adopted the euro, the single currency of the European Union. Their official national positions were firmly in favor of the constitution.

But unlike in France, which is considered central to the EU, the feeling in the Netherlands is that the country has been pushed to the edge and that the expansion last year to 25 nations further marginalized the small country. During the campaign, concerns surfaced that the Dutch were putting more into Europe than they were getting out of it.

Balkenende had tried to rally support for the constitution in a televised statement late Tuesday: "The future of the Netherlands is in Europe. I believe a no vote is not in the interest of the Netherlands, or of Europe."

The yes campaign included television advertisements showing concentration camps and mass graves from the Bosnia war, followed by the words "never again."

The constitution was designed to make running the expanded European Union more manageable. It moved about 40 areas of decision-making from requiring unanimous support in the European Parliament to needing what's called a "qualified majority," or 55 percent of votes by those representing 65 percent of the European Union's population.

Rob Boudewegn, a senior fellow for the European Studies Program at Clingendael Institute, a Dutch political-research center, said that the European Union had ignored what people wanted or didn't want for decades.

"No one asked if people wanted the euro," he said. "No one asked if they wanted enlargement. The elites have never listened to the voice of the people before. Maybe they got what they deserved with this vote."

Supporters of the constitution apparently thought it would pass without much debate. No effort was made to explain the complex document until April. Meanwhile, unfounded rumors sprang up that the constitution would end the Netherlands' liberal drug and euthanasia laws.

Uncertainty over the direction of Europe was thought to have played a role in the continuing drop of the euro, which fell Wednesday to an eight-month low of one euro equaling $1.22.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050601 EU constitution, 20050601 EUVOTE map and 20050531 EUVOTE Netherlands

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