Netherlands set to delay EU referendum decision
The Netherlands is set to postpone a decision on whether to hold a second referendum on the European constitution until a new version of the text is agreed at EU level.
The three Dutch political parties that are in the final stages of forming a new centre-left government on Monday (5 February) broadly endorsed a coalition agreement which leaves the tricky decision of whether to hold a new EU constitution referendum to the country's highest constitutional advisory body, the Council of State.
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According to sources in The Hague, the Council of State will only bring its advice on how to ratify a new EU treaty - by referendum or by parliament - once EU governments have agreed on changes to the current text of the EU constitution which was rejected by the Netherlands and France in 2005.
The move means that until there is an EU deal on a new text - planned by member states for 2008 - it will be unclear whether the charter will be subject to a second referendum in the Netherlands, injecting a strong element of uncertainty to the constitutional revival process.
The Dutch Council of State two years ago played a crucial role in the Dutch parliament's decision to organise a referendum on the EU constitution, saying the charter was "to a certain extent" comparable to a change in the Dutch national constitution.
Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad writes that the three new Dutch government parties - Christian Democrats, Labour and the protestant Christian Union - hope that this time, the Council of State will not advise in favour of a referendum on a re-negotiated treaty which The Hague hopes will be simpler and less far-reaching than the EU constitution.
It is hoped that if a new version of the charter is stripped of quasi-constitutional elements, such as the name "constitution," the Council of State will advise ratification by parliament instead of by referendum.
Referendum yes or no?
The thinking in The Hague bears resemblance to ideas in Paris and London, where politicians have also said that if the constitution is reduced to a shorter and simpler treaty, no referendums are necessary.
The move by the new Dutch coalition does not take away the risk of a second Dutch referendum however, with Dutch MPs free to ignore any advice by the Council of State and with the 2005 "no" camp expected to push strongly for a second referendum whatever a new version of the constitution looks like.
The second-largest prospective coalition party, Labour, is still keeping its options open and could help the pro-referendum camp to a majority.
Labour parliamentarian Frans Timmermans told EUobserver that if the agreed compromise "strongly looks like" the constitution, his party would back a new referendum. "The nature of the treaty determines the nature of its treatment," he said.
Meanwhile, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso expressed unease with the prospect of a second Dutch constitution referendum talking to Dutch papers ahead of a visit to The Hague later this week.
"Referendums make the process of approval of European treaties much more complicated and less predictable," he said, asking "every member state" considering a referendum to "think twice," according to Het Financieele Dagblad.
Mr Barroso in his previous job as as Portuguese prime minister in 2004 backed a referendum on the EU constitution in his own country - but since then his thinking has changed, he indicated.
"I was in favour of a referendum as a prime minister, but it does make our lives with 27 member states in the EU more difficult. If a referendum had been held on the creation of the European Community or the introduction of the euro, do you think these would have passed?" the commission chief asked according to De Volkskrant.
Mr Barroso also told the Netherlands, which until now has been largely silent on what it wants to see changed in a new EU treaty, to contribute to a solution to the deadlock produced by the French and Dutch "no" votes.
"If you have signed a treaty, you should also ratify it," he stated. "And if you can't, you should at least contribute to a solution."
Against an EU superstate
Some contributions on treaty content are meanwhile emerging from the fresh coalition agreement.
The new Dutch government, set to be led by current Christian Democrat prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, will push for a stronger definition of EU and national competencies in a revised EU treaty, sources said.
The Hague will seek assurances in the new text that Brussels will not move into areas currently under national sovereignty, such as social security, health and housing - reflecting fears of an EU "superstate" which are seen to have played a big role in the Dutch "no" against the EU constitution in 2005.
The Netherlands will also push for stronger powers for national parliaments in the EU, backing a "red card" procedure of national MPs against the European Commission overstepping its powers - instead of the softer "yellow card" procedure in the current constitution text.
But the coalition agreement is said not to contain language on the need to scrap the EU flag and the EU anthem from the text, as previously proposed by outgoing Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot.