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Dutch voters strongly reject EU constitution

AMSTERDAM -- Following their neighbors in France, Dutch voters delivered a stinging rebuke yesterday to the architects of a unified Europe by voting overwhelmingly against the new European Union constitution.

With almost all the votes counted, 62 percent said ''no" to the constitution and only 38 percent supported it. In France on Sunday the ''no" vote was 55 percent. Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende conceded defeat less than 30 minutes after the polls closed.

''The people have spoken clearly, and we must respect this fully," he said, acknowledging that Dutch politicians ''had spent too much time talking to ourselves and not enough listening to the people." Turnout was 62 percent, much higher than had been expected.

Although some European leaders have vowed to press on with the ratification process, the stunning rejection of the draft constitution by two of the European Union's six founding members means the 448-article constitution is, for all intents, a dead letter.

Nine EU members have approved the constitution, but only Spain did so by referendum. The others ratified it in their legislatures. The constitution has to be accepted by all 25 member states to take effect.

The new constitution was supposed to streamline the decision-making process for the EU, speed economic changes, and allow Europe to speak with a unified voice on foreign policy. If European leaders now decide to withdraw the draft, the EU will continue operating under the terms of the Treaty of Nice, which came into force two years ago.

This means the EU will remain a significant economic trading bloc, but the dreams of France, Germany, and many lesser European powers of evolving into a kind of United States of Europe that could rival the United States as a political force will have to be put on hold.

This week's double defeat has roiled political waters across Europe. The euro fell against the dollar after the French vote, and President Jacques Chirac reshuffled his government.

In Brussels, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged member governments that have not yet ratified the constitution to stay calm and not make decisions until the EU summit later this month. ''We have a serious problem, but we must continue our work," Barroso said.

But Britain, which was expected to hold a referendum on the constitution in the first half of next year, is now talking about abandoning the idea.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government supports the constitution, but chances of a ''yes" vote in Britain always have been considered tenuous, and Blair's Labor Party views the referendum as a serious liability. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw hinted earlier this week that if the Dutch said ''no," a decision to call off the referendum might be announced next Monday.

Poland is the next big country scheduled to vote, on Sept. 25. After joining the EU along with nine other countries a year ago, Poland has had a testy relationship with Brussels. Although Poland's government strongly identifies with Europe, it led the unsuccessful campaign to include some mention of God and Christianity in the new constitution. Poles also are miffed that they are still excluded from some member states' labor markets.

Political analysts in the Netherlands attributed the ''no" vote to a weak campaign by the government and uncertainty about the economy.

''People weren't convinced that the government was convinced," said Maarten Huygens, a journalist at NCR Handelsblad, a leading Dutch daily.

''Maybe if we were still in the high-rolling '90s, it wouldn't have been a problem . . . [but] we are in the longest postwar recession, and people are very insecure about their future," he said. ''Some people blame it on globalization, a loss of control, and they feel the problem is in Brussels."

Even those who voted ''yes" agreed that the government had run a poor campaign and given people few reasons to vote in favor of the constitution.

''I'm in favor of European unity, but it was not clear to me what we are voting for today," said Lotte Niks, 24, a student living in Amsterdam. She added that no one she knew had actually read the document.

As in France, opposition in the Netherlands ranged across the political spectrum. The ''no" campaign was spearheaded by the minuscule Socialist Party, which controls only nine seats in the Dutch parliament, but also drew support from the far right anti-immigration party of Geert Wilders.

While the government campaigned on the less-than-inspiring slogan of ''Europe: It's rather important," Wilders, a colorful populist, was busy handing out fake 180-euro notes representing the per-capita loss based on what the Dutch pay into Europe and what they get back.

The ''no" campaign also played out against the backdrop of the November 2004 murder of Theo Van Gogh, a well-known Dutch filmmaker who was killed by a militant Muslim immigrant.

The slaying stunned the nation, and for many Dutch it came to embody their fear that the Netherlands' liberal values were being undermined by a flood of immigrants from Muslim counties. Some Dutch are concerned that the expansion of the EU to include Turkey will further endanger their national identity; others suggest that too many rules from Brussels will have the same effect.

Laura DeJong, a retired Amsterdam schoolteacher, said she voted against the constitution ''because we want to stay Dutch."

Others who voted ''no" said they still support the idea of Europe but want to apply the brakes.

''It's all going too fast," said Rob Molveld, 39, an artist. ''I believe in Europe, but I don't trust what's happening in Brussels."

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