The Dutch Experience


Early in September, Harry van Bommel, European affairs spokesman for the Dutch Socialist Party, and the man who led the Netherlands' successful campaign for a 'no' in the referendum on the EU Constitution in 2005, gave this speech at a conference in Ireland organised by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance.

I can see that some of you are thinking - here is another foreigner telling us what to do with our vote. I'm not going to hide the fact that I'm not the biggest fan of the Lisbon treaty, and I will certainly be presenting some arguments against it. But the main concern that I want to share with you today is about the manner decisions on the future of the European Union are being taken. Because since the failure of the European leaders to get the European peoples, often via a referendum, to give their support to the constitutional treaty in 2005, the European leaders have shown that they don't take 'no' for an answer. The experience of the last 5 years is that a handful of politicians and bureaucrats in the EU are seeing involvement of the European peoples as an obstacle to their plans for the future of Europe. And so they use all kind of tactics around it, which I deem utterly undemocratic.

Let us go back in time.

In 2005 I had the privilege of playing a leading role in the Dutch 'no' campaign against the EU-constitution. In contrast to the Irish, this was the first time the Dutch people had been allowed a say about the future of Europe. This was to be the case for many other countries where referenda on the treaty were planned, although few eventually took place. The Dutch people overwhelmingly said 'no' to the constitutional treaty, just as the French had done some days before, and made clear that they didn't like the way it was heading. This came as a shock to the ruling elite, since 85% of Parliament, from both left and right, had said 'yes' to the Constitution. Obviously, they did not represent the people. Did the people want to get out of the EU? No - the Dutch are big supporters of EU membership, just like the Irish, but in their view the enlargement took place too quickly, and they didn't like the idea of Europe developing into a federal state.

Opponents of the treaty, such as myself, were accused of scare tactics (sounds familiar?) when talking about a federal Europe, which I think this is the core of the debate. Does the constitutional treaty or the Lisbon treaty turn the European Union into a federal state? The answer is yes and no. From the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 on to the constitutional treaty a.k.a. Lisbon treaty, each treaty did almost the same thing: giving more powers to the European Union, including those seen as the core of each sovereign state: Foreign Affairs, Defence, Justice and Home affairs, economic and monetary policy with a common currency, etc. and diminishing the power of individual states to block European decision by changes in the voting weights en abolishing veto's.

So downplaying the importance of the Lisbon treaty for turning the EU into a federal state is denying the greater development of the European Union of the last twenty years. The treaty is part of a development and logically can for the layman only be judged by its effects . Do you like the EU developing into a federal state? Does this treaty address the concerns you have on the way the EU has been developing? All legitimate questions.

But after the rejection of the constitutional treaty the Dutch government didn't launch a public debate on the future of Europe, which you could expect. Instead they went silent. A 'pause for thought' became a pause in thinking. Even in the parliamentary elections of 2006, the question of how to go further after the rejection wasn't debated. The only thing reminding the Dutch of the 2005 rejection was the fact that by then a majority of parties, including the Labour Party which now forms part of the governing coalition, vowed to organise a new referendum in the case of a new EU-treaty, a promise which afterwards turned out to be worthless.

And things got worse. Negotiations on a new treaty started, but it turned out to be, according to the British think-tank Open Europe, 96% the same old constitutional treaty. The same was said by many EU-leaders: "The substance of the Constitution is preserved. That is a fact," said Angela Merkel the German Chancellor. "90 per cent of it is still there. These changes haven't made any dramatic change to the substance of what was agreed back in 2004" said Teflon Taoiseach , your former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. And I can quote many more.

Instead all the effort of our prime minister Balkenende, closely working together with the other European leaders, went into making minimal mostly cosmetic changes so European leaders could sell this to their people and avoid new referenda. The constitutional treaty was stripped of its name, anthem, European laws became directives again, the minister of foreign affairs became a High Representative, and the treaty only summed up the changes to the current treaties instead of showing the final treaties itself. So if you have tried to read the Lisbon treaty and found it almost unreadable, you can blame our prime minister.

And the scam worked. Our government, just like many governments all over Europe, took the unilateral decision that no new referendum was needed, because now, stripped of its symbols and re-baptised as the 'Lisbon Treaty', the treaty was no longer deemed 'constitutional'. The social democratic party broke their vow saying they meant only a referendum on a constitutional treaty. My own parliamentary initiative for a referendum, proposed together with both opponents and supporters of the treaty, was stranded by a blockade of the governing coalition parties.

It's my conviction that with these moves, first giving and then denying the people a say on this matter, these parties did great harm to support for the European Union.

The Irish scam

Luckily the Irish constitution is better at protecting its citizens against the giving away of their country's sovereign power by its politicians than are most constitutions in Europe, in that it makes a referendum on EU treaties obligatory. And when again in another country the people said 'no' to the treaty, I finally hoped that the European leaders had learned their lesson, would stop pushing this treaty and start working on a real involvement of European citizens on its future.

Instead, history repeated itself and a new scam was organised. Your Taoiseach Cowen actively worked side by side with European leaders on guarantees which leave the Lisbon treaty intact. On all the justifiable worries of the Irish people - on the threat of a European influence on taxation, abortion law, social provision, and neutrality in time of war, texts have now been produced which say bluntly that the Irish people should not worry and were wrong all the time. When I asked our prime minister what these guarantees would change in the Lisbon Treaty, his reply was that the Irish government had agreed that "all guarantees would be in keeping with the Lisbon Treaty."

Guarantee on Neutrality

So to take one guarantee, that on neutrality, the demand from other member states was, in so many words, "no special status for Ireland when it comes to the question of neutrality." It is guaranteed that the Irish neutrality will not be tampered with. But is it not contrary to neutrality to give up your own army? Supporters on the treaty say all countries have a veto on this, but this treaty makes a common army possible, it paves the way. Why should it do that, if that's what your government doesn't want? No exception has been negotiated by your government. And how do you define neutrality? When an EU army is sent out, with support of Ireland, but no Irish troops are involved; do you think the rest of the world will see Ireland as neutral? The fact is that the treaty will give a great boost to the military development of the EU. The British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee tried to summarize the foreign policy aspects of the Lisbon Treaty in January this year. Its conclusion is that under the Lisbon Treaty the European security and defence policy would gain an expanded and more distinctive Treaty base.

In the existing Treaty defence policy is dealt with in a single Article. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European security and defence policy would have five Articles. These five changes are:

1 expanded "aims and ambitions" for the policy, in particular as regards Member State military capabilities;
2 an expansion in the list of "Petersberg tasks", i.e. the humanitarian, crisis management and peace-building tasks which the EU may undertake;
3 the introduction into an EU Treaty for the first time of reference to the European Defence Agency, a body aimed at encouraging greater and more co-ordinated defence capabilities development among Member States, which Member States may join voluntarily and which was already established in 2004 by a decision of the Member States;
4 the introduction of the possibility of what is called "subcontracting" of security and defence tasks to "coalitions of the able and willing" among the Member States;
5 the introduction of the possibility of "permanent structured co-operation'

In addition to this the treaty suggests an arrangement among a group of Member States possessing greater military capabilities which could be established by a qualified majority decision of the full Council. The Foreign Secretary told us in December that the creation of "permanent structured cooperation" is about "enhancing capability for European defence; EU-led operations in respect of security in the European neighbourhood".

Of great importance to Ireland's neutrality is the solidarity clause under article 188r. This article states that the union and its member states shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a member state is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. The Union shall mobilise all the instruments at its disposal, including the military resources made available by the member states.

So even if you guarantee Irish neutrality , what does that mean in relation to the changes the Lisbon treaty will make, which I mentioned earlier?

Legally binding

To push the charade somewhat further, your Taoiseach demanded that these seemingly worthless guarantees would be made legally binding. But to prevent the need for renewed ratification in all countries, the guarantees will be added to the next accession treaty, probably that of Croatia. This is a bizarre outcome and in my view an impure mixture of completely different matters.

Honest debate

My conclusion is that the European leaders don't want an honest debate on the future of Europe and give the people a say in it. If you want the EU to develop into a federal state, then say yes - it's up to you. But it should be clear that this is the decision being taken . As an outsider I am already shocked by the way this time the debate in Ireland is taking place. Honest is the last word I would use.

First of all, the involvement of the European Commission. As early as the beginning of this year I asked questions about the 1,8 million euro costing campaign they have launched in Ireland this year. They gave as a reason for the campaign the lack of knowledge of the Irish on the European Union and denying a link with the referendum. We have also seen their recent unprecendented interference in the debate by responding to certain arguments distributed by some opponents of the treaty, the Farmers For No. One of the commission's task in normal times is to give out infromation, but during a sensitive referendum campaign they should surely maintain a respectful silence . Is that so difficult?

Secondly, the decision of your media to stop giving fair coverage to supporters and opponents of the treaty, which will in effect be heavily unfavourable to its opponents. They have to develop and correct the arguments which were already being spread by the government before the campaign even began. Giving more money to the neutral mainstream will only mean more recycling of those ideas.


Thirdly, and most important, all the arguments linked to the crisis and spread with extensive support by companies like Intel and Ryanair. It's perfectly understandable that in these times of crisis people want to be part of the EU; united we stand strong. Didn't the EU membership bring us wealth? Yes indeed and I am sure Ireland benefited more than many other countries. But I can tell you a secret; it's not what you're voting on. You are not going to be kicked out of the EU when you say no to Lisbon. They can't do that. It would take a new treaty.

On the contrary, with the new treaty I see the risk that the European economy will only benefit a few companies and rich people, while the majority will lose out. The treaty transfers more power to Brussels, where major corporations with over 10.000 lobbyists have a big influence. We can see already its harmful effects in the development of the current crisis. To give an example: the liberalisation of the financial markets in the European Union has lead to more speculation and risk-taking. Countries were competing to get the most financial companies and in that race were downgrading their supervision. So there were people in the Netherlands but also the UK who had put much of their savings in a bank called Icesave, which went bankrupt. The Dutch regulatory authority had some doubt about the reliability of the bank, but according to European rules had to rely on the regulatory authority in the land where the bank was seated and couldn't take action. So supervision failed and people lost extensive amounts in savings. These are the kinds of rules you get when big business acquires a large say in new lawmaking in the EU. And we see this influence on all kinds of services of general interest, like transport, health care or the energy market.


One important way to correct this influence is to strengthen the national parliaments where the people can witness the decisions being made. Instead all the recent treaties have downgraded their influence by giving away more vetos, which effectively means giving the majority of EU-countries the power to decide what's best for you without your parliament having the chance to block legislation. Are you convinced that on those areas where vetos are abolished, like energy, climate, sports, there are really only common interests shared by all 27 countries? Do not misunderstand what I'm trying to say; it's not that I am against cooperation in the European Union on these issues; on the contrary, it's badly needed. But countries differ too much on these issues for them to be decided by a simple majority. Member states should therefore have the last say. If not, the whole European project will lose public support because politicians will go home saying: "we didn't want this but a majority in Brussels made us accept it." Already the number one problem is not that the EU cannot be governed, but the fact that it lacks public support.

Since the Nice treaty in 2001 everyone has been warning that with 27 member states decision making will run slow because of the threat of persistent vetoes, but we have seen no decline in the amount of laws decided upon in the EU.

But didn't the European Parliament get more powers? Yes it did, but it's not a substitute. People can't witness debates there, because there are no debates; only speeches being read from paper. There is no European government which can be questioned in a debate. And can we talk of a real European people, with a European public debate, common media and political parties, all governed by a sufficient common interest? No, not even close. This view is also presented by a recent ruling of the Federal Supreme Court of the biggest country in the EU, Germany, which forces the German government to make arrangements to secure the power of the country's parliament against the changes made by the Lisbon Treaty. It rightly states that the European Parliament is no substitute for the national parliaments, which are the primary representatives of their people. So handing the European Parliament more powers is no excuse for taking them away from national parliaments.

Concluding remarks

So once again the Irish people may vote - on exactly the same treaty. On the last occasion the Irish people voted in the name of all other European peoples, including the Dutch, who were deemed by their own politicians unfit to judge the treaty. Now, the Irish may not only vote on the Lisbon Treaty a.k.a. the Constitutional Treaty, but also have the chance to send a message to all the European leaders: that power belongs to the people, and when they say 'no' it means 'no'. After the rejection of the treaty by the French and Dutch, and last year by the Irish people, this third time I hope that the Irish will say, in relation to the Lisbon Treaty: three strikes - you're out. It's the only chance we have to get an honest debate on the future on Europe in a democratic manner.

Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the Dutch Socialist Party