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Analysis: Dutch put ax to EU Constitution

By GARETH HARDING, Chief European Correspondent

BRUSSELS, June 1 (UPI) -- The Netherlands, one of the six founding members of the EU and traditionally one of its most solid backers, delivered a potentially fatal blow to the bloc's first constitution Wednesday when voters overwhelmingly rejected the treaty.

According to exit polls, 63 percent of the electorate said "no" to the charter, while 37 percent said "yes." At 62 percent, turnout was much higher than expected and more than double the figure the government said was necessary for parliament to ratify the document.

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After the French "no" Sunday, the Dutch result is a double whammy for the constitution, which aims to make an enlarged European Union of 25 states more open, efficient and democratic.

"The French slapped the left cheek of Europe; the Dutch have now slapped the right," said Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament. "I hope this will bring the European Union out of its torpor and force its leaders -- EU and national -- to show leadership."

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The result is also a devastating blow to the European project, which was founded by countries like France and the Netherlands almost 50 years ago to forge an "ever closer union" among the states and peoples of the continent. The states of Europe are certainly more tightly bound than ever, but Dutch and French voters appear to want to break free of Brussels' shackles.

"Our institutionalized debate over procedures, rules and structures has failed to connect to people's lives," admitted Gary Titley, leader of the British Labor faction in the European Parliament. "This is the clear message from the French and Dutch referenda."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who faces an uphill task convincing voters to back the treaty in a referendum planned for next year, is likely to put the ratification process on ice until EU leaders decide how to respond to the French and Dutch decisions. Other states planning to have votes, like Poland, Ireland and the Czech Republic, may follow London's lead.

The official line from Brussels is that the controversial charter is not dead until all 25 EU member states have put it to a public or parliamentary vote.

"We always knew that there was a risk of the constitution being rejected by some countries. That is why there is a procedure built into the text for dealing with such a scenario," said Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialist group in the European Parliament.

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A declaration tacked on to the text states that if more than 20 states ratify the constitution and one or more reject it by the fall of 2006, EU leaders will meet to decide what to do next.

"Nine countries, representing 49 percent of the population of the EU, have already endorsed the constitution. Many more will follow. We cannot allow the wish of the majority of our people to be thrown casually to one side," said Schulz.

Urging EU countries to continue with the ratification process regardless of the French and Dutch votes, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker -- whose country has the rotating presidency of the EU -- added, "In a democracy, the other people of Europe should be allowed to speak."

Legally, the ratification process cannot be halted until all EU governments decide to do so. However, as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has warned, continuing with popular votes after the French and Dutch rejections runs the risk of an EU-wide "contagion." It also does not solve what to do with France and the Netherlands -- and any other country that rejects the treaty -- at the end of the ratification process in 2007.

With a renegotiation of the text ruled out by all sides, the only two options are to ask the French and Dutch to vote again in the hope of coming up with the "right" answer the second time round or to reform the union without the two founding members. The first choice would leave the EU open to accusations of vote rigging -- and is by no means sure to succeed -- and the second would lead to the splintering of the bloc.

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European leaders will meet in Brussels in two weeks to decide whether to carry on with the ratification process or ditch the constitution, which would have created an EU president and foreign minister, boosted the powers of the European Parliament and made decision-making simpler. They may also have to take measures to shore up the euro, which fell to an eight-month low against the U.S. dollar in Wednesday trading.

The Dutch "nee" is not the same as the French "non" Sunday. Whereas the electorate in France rebelled against globalization, the free market and "Anglo-Saxon" style capitalism, voters in the Netherlands slammed the EU for wasting too much money on farm subsidies, tying business up in too much red tape and threatening its famously liberal social laws. What the two results have in common is a revolt against "out of touch" Brussels bureaucrats and unpopular center-right governments in Paris and The Hague, concern that EU integration has gone too far, too fast, unease about last year's eastern enlargement of the bloc and outright opposition to Turkish membership of the union.

"If you realize that two-thirds of parliament supported the constitution and two-out-of-three people in the land are against it, it means a lot is wrong in the country," said Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende.

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It also means a lot is wrong with a bloc that is bigger and more powerful than ever but increasingly unpopular with its citizens.

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