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17th Sep 2021

Nightmare scenario of Dutch referendum returns to haunt EU

  • Both Wilders and the SP are backing a referendum on the proposed EU treaty changes (Photo: Flickr)

The nightmare scenario of another referendum on a change to the EU treaty in the Netherlands, five years after the country rejected the bloc's proposed constitution, could return to haunt European leaders, with the hard-right Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders on Tuesday (2 November) announcing it is considering proposing just such a vote.

The announcement comes days after the opposition Socialist Party also called for a referendum. The SP was one of the leaders of the successful No campaign in 2005 that defeated the EU constitution in the country.

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MP Louis Bontes of the anti-immigrant PVV, which is part of the governing coalition pact, said his faction in the parliament may push for a referendum if the penalties for countries in breach of new EU fiscal rules are not strict enough.

According to the deputy, the PVV is to propose a specific treaty change itself and not wait for EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy to come back to the European Council in December with fresh proposals for changes, as he was tasked to do by EU premiers and presidents last Friday.

The party has yet to outline what changes it will suggest, but they could include specific provisions for tough penalties for spendthrift EU member states going beyond what EU leaders had been willing to countenance.

If the party's proposals are not accepted, then will then consider pushing for a referendum on the matter.

"Then we will ask the citizens whether they are prepared to impose an obligation for countries like Greece and Spain in return for financial help," he said, according to Dutch press reports.

The left-wing Socialist Party, one of the leaders of the No campaign in 2005 against the EU constitution, claiming that the dud EU charter had favoured the interests of businesses over citizens, has already endorsed the idea that another referendum should be called.

On Friday, MP Harry Van Bommel, the party's spokesman for EU affairs and the deputy chair of the parliament's standing committee on the same subject, said that if a treaty change is approved by the European Council, it will call for a referendum.

"We are very happy to have the support of the PVV in our push for a referendum," he told EUobserver, "and that they are willing to look into the issue as well."

Mr Van Bommel was keen to stress that his party's opposition to the treaty change was for different reasons to that of the PVV.

"They are more concerned that we not pay out to poorer countries whereas we are more worried that the proposed changes limit a nation's policy space in the social arena," he explained.

He said that with the two parties backing the idea, the passage of a referendum proposal in parliament hinged on the support of the largest opposition group, the Labour Party, which sits in opposition with the further left SP, both of which have yet to pronounce on the issue.

"It all depends on the Labour party," Mr Van Bommel said. "If the Labour Party backs us, then we have a parliamentary majority. If they don't, it's the opposite."

He said he does not expect the Labour Party to offer any firm commitment before President Van Rompuy reports back in December.

The governing conservative liberals of the VVD and the centre-right Christian Democrats have rejected the referendum idea.

Under the proposed new EU rules, Brussels will watch over the spending decisions of all EU states to make sure they are "competitive." Eurozone governments that get into debt too deeply will have stiff punishments meted out to them.

Leaders were petrified that any major change to the EU treaties would set off a chain of referendums in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and possibly elsewhere, which they are convinced they would lose, as voters have their say on how leaders should have handled the economic crisis.

The Dutch prime minister and the other leaders last Friday signed off on a treaty amendment only so long as the change envisaged was "small, small, small - the smallest possible," according to a Danish diplomat, "in order to ensure there is no possibility of referendums."

EU President Herman Van Rompuy has been tasked to go away and come up with a "surgical" - perhaps just two-line - incision to the EU treaty by December.

One national diplomat described to this website the unwritten anti-referendum pact reached at the EU summit: "The move was specifically formulated to ensure that there is no possibility whatsoever that there can be any referendums. Whether this will work or not, I don't know."

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