Why French and Dutch citizens are saying NO

The French referendum on the EU constitution takes place on 29 May, followed by a similar referendum in The Netherlands on 1 June. Opinions polls show the 'no' side edging ahead, but in both countries it's still too close to call. The following virtual interview is based on presentations given at the Transnational Institute (TNI) Fellows' Meeting in Amsterdam on 21 May.

June 1, 2006 · 21 min read

What is the state of public opinion in France and in The Netherlands at this moment?

EW: It’s not just a slight majority opposed to the treaty in The Netherlands, according to the latest polls. Last week the polls were indeed still fifty-fifty between the yes and the no, but the polls that came out yesterday and today show between 60 per cent and 64 per cent for the no. So, we see there’s been a huge development during the last week, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that the Dutch government is campaigning very strongly in favour of the constitution. Although I’m sceptical of opinions polls, I’m more and more convinced that this is really happening. I had never imagined when we started our campaign that it would have developed in this direction.

SG: Although the number of undecided people is going down steadily – you know the polls are just about neck and neck in France as well – people are worried about what happens afterwards, because the government has been leaning on the chaos argument. Our answer to that is ‘well no, you just go back to where you are today. We currently have the Nice treaty and in the past there has been a treaty about every three years, so there is no reason to think this won’t keep going on as usual’. But this time we won’t turn back, because there has been a major public debate and people are now far more aware of what European policies actually are. So now we can have a genuine debate about which direction we want to go.

What are your main criticisms of the constitution?

SG: Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, a former president of France, was named as head of the constitutional convention that produced this document. The members of the convention, 105 of them, were named from above, they were appointed. About two thirds of them were either European or national parliamentarians, but they were not elected by the citizens to do this. Then there were some others supposedly representing civil society. So that’s the first criticism: the non-democratic aspect. A constitutional convention is normally an elected body, so that it comes in a sense from the people. This constitution does not come from the people; it comes from an appointed group.

EW: I could talk about this for hours, but the main basic message is that this constitution is not democratic and that if we accept it we could be left with an absolutely inadequate situation for the next 20 years or so. I think that’s very dangerous for the future of European co-operation. The second basic argument is that a constitution should be readable and accessible to the population. It should not be a document of 480 pages, with some 400 more pages of appendixes and declarations. That’s really crazy.

SG: The members of the convention worked for about two years and were only supposed to deal with the balances of power, as you would normally do in a constitution. Besides this, they were supposed to constitutionalise the Charter, a fundamental declaration of rights which had been placed in the Nice Treaty but had not been formalised beyond that. Then, for reasons that I am not really clear on, Giscard d’Estaing himself decided to include part three, which is around three quarters of the document and which is this whole list of very detailed policies.

EW: This document contains a lot of policy. It includes a whole chapter on economic policies basically fixing Europe on a neo-liberal framework. That kind of stuff should not be present in a constitution because if the European governments would like to subsequently change that policy choice it would not be possible, it would be anti-constitutional. So that’s very dangerous and very easy to explain to people. The inclusion of this whole chapter on neo-liberal policies in the constitution is one of our main points of critique.

Another important criticism is the militarisation of the EU. The document includes key articles saying that the member states of the EU will improve their military capabilities every year. This has been turned around by part of the left, who say that improving doesn’t necessarily mean spending more, but if you know where these proposals come from then you get worried. They are the product of a working group which included several representatives of the European military industry, and who want to sell their goods. That’s why they were very happy to have these paragraphs in the European constitution.

SG: Part three includes a whole list of policies in every area, agriculture, environment, police co-operation, justice, the central bank, etc. But the main thing is, however, that the objectives of the union define it as an economic space where you have freedoms of movement for goods, services, people and capital, and a space in which competition is free and unhindered. Competition comes into the text 47 times, the word market 78 times, the phrase social progress is not mentioned at all, or once I guess, and unemployment is not mentioned at all.

We have many objections to the content of this document, but the major one is that this text is not amendable, is not revisable. It’s not amendable because you need a triple unanimity across all 25 countries. To amend the constitution there first has to be a convention, which has to reach a consensus. Then they hand the baby to the heads of government, who also have to be unanimous in agreeing the proposed changes. Then it goes into a process like the one we are going through now, of either parliamentary approval or referendums, and that also has to be unanimous otherwise the constitution cannot be changed. So it is considered by anybody who has read the thing to be virtually impossible to amend.

How have the French and the Dutch governments reacted to the no campaign?

SG: The French government uses the argument that there is no ‘Plan B’, and that just because France says no that doesn’t mean that the other governments will be willing to renegotiate. Our response to that is that somebody has got to put a stop to this and, legally, if France votes no this document is out. It’s out for everyone.

President Jacques Chirac also says ‘we will be the black sheep of Europe.’ The government are trying to make people believe we would be living under a different law from the rest of Europe, that everybody else would have the constitution but we would have something different, and they have been confusing this with a new article that says that any state has the right to leave Europe. So they are promoting ambiguity on this point.

But in fact we feel that after the vote there would be a great deal of time for debate and that the balance of power would change drastically. If we win that means that the Socialist leadership is discredited, the president is discredited and the prime minister too – the result will be political upheaval throughout French politics. Then we can also have a real debate about what we want next with our comrades in other countries. That is what should happen. But first we have to say no, this is not the model we want for Europe and the world.

EW: In Holland they have just approved a special budget of four million euro to campaign for the yes, because they were very afraid of the no. We have initiated a court case to either demand that this money is not spent, or that the no campaign should get equal access to the media and equal amounts of money, because this is completely out of proportion. The no campaign has had 400,000 euro in total, and that has been spread over a number of groups. My own group, which is the main active group campaigning for the no, only got 30,000 euro, so we can compare our 30,000 with their four million.

Anyway, I think we can be happy that the government is so disliked by the Dutch population at this moment, because it has been implementing hard line neo-liberal social policies. There were a lot of trade union demonstrations at the end of last year and I think that what we see now in this clear shift toward the no is a kind of pay-off.

SG: I would like to thank former European Commissioner Frits Bolkenstein, a former member of the Dutch government, for coming to France and defending his directive, which is about the freedom of movement of services and about how the laws of the country of origin apply and not the law of the country in which a service is rendered. And he said he didn’t believe in all this referendum stuff, that people were elected to vote on these things and they just should be allowed to get on with it, and that ordinary people should not be involved in this debate. So that was a real help. That was a big boost to us.

EW: The Dutch government has made a lot of public relation mistakes. One of the main governing parties, the Liberals, made a TV advertisement in which they showed some pictures of Auschwitz, Srebrenica – which is a big Dutch trauma – and then the Madrid bombings, and the concluding message was ‘we need an EU constitution to make Europe better and safer.’ So afterwards the Liberals thought ‘oh well, maybe it is not such a good idea to broadcast this,’ but unfortunately for them the clips were already circulating on the internet. This is a good example of how the government is completely lacking arguments to sell the constitution. They are really falling back on empty statements about why Europe is so important.

SG: The French government is pulling out all the stops. They are panicking. The business people had said ‘we are not going to actively campaign because we think it wouldn’t be a good idea, it might be counterproductive.’ But this week over a hundred major business leaders have signed an appeal for a yes vote. The defence minister has said: ‘if you don’t vote for the yes, Europe will be shot to hell.’ They are really panicking. Chirac appeared on TV with a group of carefully selected young people, and two members of ATTAC were thrown out because they said they were too partisan. So the remaining kids were supposed to be very obedient and nice, but they asked questions about our future that Chirac wasn’t able to answer, and the polls for the no went up after that. So we thank Chirac too. And then there’s the prime minister. Every time he goes on TV it helps us.

People are also voting against the expression of neo-liberalism in France that they have been suffering since the present government was elected in 2002.

How and why did you begin to work around the referendum?

EW: We started about one and half years ago. Basically, we were a group of people coming from a broadly left perspective who had been working on EU issues for a long time. I have been working on EU issues from the mid-1990s and was involved in the alternative summit in 1997 during the negotiations for the Amsterdam Treaty.

We sat together and strategised on how to approach this referendum question and how to ensure that it would not be possible for the government to say ‘when you say no you are a xenophobe,’ which would have put us in the same corner as the right-wing populists.

SG: The French debate on the constitution began in a rather low-key way. We haven’t been working on it for one and half years, but we have been working on it since last summer. ATTAC brought out a list of 21 demands to the intergovernmental conference in 2004, none of which was satisfied, except that equality between men and women was put in the objectives, but that was only one out of 21 demands; the others were not satisfied. Then a process began which I can’t really explain, because this is the biggest debate we have had in France since 1968. I don’t know where this comes from. It must be the fact that nobody has been asked to give his or her opinion about Europe in the last 13 years. The last time was around Maastricht, in 1992, and they kept saying (the government and Giscard d’Estaing and the people who wrote the constitution) ‘well, don’t worry about part three, this is not really the issue, that is just a recap of all the things that were in the previous treaties, so you have been living under that and you will be living under it.’ But people didn’t really know Europe was all encapsulated, all written down in a single document. Our adversaries never quoted the text. Once you start to quote it, and people find out what’s actually in this and find out what’s going to be constitutionalised and not revisable and not amendable, they get scared to death.

In terms of organising against the constitution, that really began with the ‘call of the 200’, which was a document signed by 200 people coming from different parts of the left, including movements, trade unions, parties, etc. That spearheaded the formation of collectives all over France. Now there are between 800 and 900 grassroots collectives at the departmental level, city level, or sometimes even smaller. These collectives have been organising debates all over the country. I have been in debates ranging from 100 to 5000 participants. The right gets nowhere near these kind of crowds.

EW: At the start of our campaign we wanted to involve social movements and NGOs. Our idea was to form a kind of platform as we had done at the time of the 1997 counter-summit, the European summit from below, but we found out that none of the NGOs was ready to take a real position on the constitution. In particular, they were afraid to publicly opt for the no side. So basically it was impossible for us to form that kind of coalition.

We then decided to focus on influencing the terms of the debate. We began by writing articles on the constitution ourselves, and we also asked some people from different political origins, for example from the Social Democrat party and the Green party, to do the same. So, we even have pieces written by members of parties that support the yes vote, plus content analysis and criticisms of the constitution gathered in one book. We also produced other kind of materials, such as a brochure in which we outline our main objections against the constitution. And I think that has been very important, because from the right-wing side there has been no good content, there has been almost no content, and I think that has been a great advantage for us.

SG: We have produced a lot of materials. Books about the constitution are best-sellers. ATTAC produced a little book with a picture of Chirac together with Francois Roland, who is the general secretary of the Socialist party, on the cover of a popular weekly called Match. The headline was ‘they said yes to each other.’ You know, it looks like a gay wedding, and we have a picture of them ice-skating together and they say yes to each other. In this booklet we answered all the arguments of the Socialist party and the centre-right UMP. This sold 38,000 copies in the first week. Then we brought out another book which explains the Constitution step by step.

Not every criticism of the constitution comes from the progressive camp. What other political forces are supporting the no vote?

EW: Part of the right is mobilising around this issue, and they have been campaigning for the no as well, but until now it’s amazing that we have been able to get more media coverage than them. Until this week it was basically only our voice that was arguing for a no vote in the media. Now Geert Wilders, a right-wing populist politician, is touring with a bus, so that generates some media attention for him, but still it’s impossible for the government to say that if you oppose the constitution then you must be a right-wing xenophobe.

SG: I think the yes side is the one advocating a pure and hardline neo-liberalism. It’s about taking Europe into an American model in which there is little social protection, and there is competition of everybody against everybody. Public services would be hugely downgraded, free education and free health could be very seriously hit. So the yes side is really offering an American model of competition, in which it’s the market that decides and there is very little politics. The people will be dispossessed of the possibility to decide much of anything.

The European Left is divided around this issue. Why are some political parties supporting the yes vote?

EW: In The Netherlands the Green Left party says yes to the constitution. So the only left party campaigning for a no vote is the Socialist party.

The Green party argues that although this is not an ideal treaty, it makes some progress in terms of improving democracy at the EU level. Their evaluation is also that, within the current political context, if you have a renegotiation there is little chance that anything better will come out. They are saying that the treaty will make Europe better at dealing with unemployment, that it contains lots of improvements on environmental policy, etc. We think that these claims are very questionable, but that’s their line of argument.

SG: I see a lot of similarities between The Netherlands and France. The Socialists had an internal party referendum and the leadership came out long ago for the yes (it was about 60-40). The result is that the Socialists are now split, because two major figures in the party leadership have come out for the no. One is the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, and another, Henri Emmanuelli, leads a tendency which is the furthest to the left. The party leadership has accused them of playing the game of the far-right fascists, and they have been insulted and vilified by their own party. This does not go down too well with the rank and file. In every poll, more than 50 per cent of people who identify themselves as Socialists say they will vote no. The same thing goes for the Greens.

How do you respond to arguments defending the alleged progressive aspects of the Constitution?

SG: Part one of the constitution is about the distribution of power and also contains the military clauses. It says very clearly that NATO is going to be the major component of the defence of states which belong to the EU. That’s in part one, but still the European Parliament does not have the power to initiate legislation or to raise taxes, and it has none of the powers of a normal parliament in a normal country.

Part two is the fundamental charter of rights. Many people have problems with this, particularly in France, because it’s regressive compared to the French constitution and to other constitutions that have been written since the 18th century, including the initial declaration of the rights of men and women. One of the clauses of the charter, for instance, says you have the right to look for a job but not that you have the right to work. Work is not treated as a fundamental right. But the right to work is the basic grounding of unemployment compensation, so this is a very serious regression. There are others. Many women feel that the simple mention that ‘everyone has the right to life’ without any mention of women’s gains in various countries is a serious omission, and feel that this section was so worded because in various countries, including Portugal and Ireland, there is no right to control over fertility, abortion, etc.

There are various other things that seem regressive to us and at the end of the charter it states ‘this creates no new tasks or obligations for the EU and any court decision about it is not a claimable right.’ In other words, court decisions cannot enforce claimable rights. They can only decide whether the constitution is being applied or not.

EW: Our main argument is basically the democracy argument, so in response to what the Green party is saying we acknowledge that there are some small improvements, such as the fact that European Parliament in getting a bit more say over EU policies in some fields. Transparency in the Council of Ministers will be slightly improved as well. But – there’s always a ‘but’ going with these improvements – if you talk about transparency in the Council you must consider that most of the Council decisions are prepared in committees. The almost a thousand committees that exist today will remain as un-transparent as they are now. There’s absolutely no scrutiny about what they are doing, and that situation will not be changed by the constitution.

The European Parliament has over the years got more powers, but still you cannot compare it with your national parliament. The first thing is that there are no real parties: there are groups in the EU Parliament which some people think are parties, like the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrat group, but these do not really function as parties, they are just a conglomerate of national fractions which operate under an umbrella. There have been some attempts by the Greens, for example, to create a European Green party, but those are very provisional. So in that sense we have a very peculiar kind of politics, and it’s even more peculiar because you don’t have a government with a political party composition. Each country nominates its own Commissioner and the Commission behaves as a kind of government, but you don’t have the normal dynamics between governing parties and opposition parties that you’d see in a representative democracy.

SG: We also use the argument of democracy and the fact that economic policies are instruments that should not be in a constitutional document. There is a double executive proposed in the constitution: one is the Commission, which is defined as the only entity which can define the common good, that’s its job. And then there is a single president, who is elected for a renewable term of two and a half years. But that seems to be a recipe for in-fighting between two different sources of executive power. In other words, they get rid of the six-months rotating presidency, where it can go to Finland and then to Greece, and then to Ireland and so on. So they get rid of that, which may be a good thing, but in a way which doesn’t seem to be very productive.

Overall, though, our argument comes back to neo-liberalism. When the constitution was handed by the convention to the heads of states and governments, their additions and subtractions made it even more neo-liberal than it was when it came out of the hands of the convention. Perhaps that reflects the governments of Europe as they are today. But it becomes a problem because it is extremely difficult to change this constitution. As the 1793 French constitution says, ‘One generation should not subject future generations to its laws.’

People who have actually read the text of the constitution almost always come out of this difficult exercise determined to vote against it, despite the official financial and media propaganda for the yes vote, which says ‘its more democratic than what we had’.

If we lose the vote in France it will be a historic defeat. But I have faith in the intelligence of the French people and I think we can win.

Edited by Daniel Chavez for the Transnational Institute, with additional editing by Oscar Reyes

Transcription: Marita NadaluttiParis-based Susan George (SG) is TNI Associate Director, Vice-President of Attac France and an active campaigner against the constitution. Erik Wesselius (EW) is a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory and the Secretary of the Comité Grondwet Nee (Dutch Committee for the NO Vote) in The Netherlands.

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