European nations grow protective of their identities

Failed referendums show fears of dominance by EU

June 05, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UTRECHT, Netherlands - The Dutch want to maintain their liberal ways, the French want their 35-hour work week and the British want to hang onto their pounds, the common-currency euro be damned.

More than that, though, as shown by two failed referendums on a European constitution in France and Holland - and the almost-certain cancellation of a vote in Britain - the Dutch want to remain Dutch, the French to remain French and the British to remain British.

Becoming more "European" has had little in the way of appeal to people here and many other parts of the continent. And that's partly because few people seem to have an idea of what becoming more European actually means.

"We have some very liberal ideas here, and they're not shared by places like Ireland or France," said Ruud Schalken, 38, a graphic artist who lives and works in this town 25 miles south of Amsterdam and who wants no part of a European constitution.

"We don't want to evolve into the United States of Europe if that means we can no longer be Dutch," he said. "What's wrong with how we are now?"

What's wrong, according to the leaders of the 25 European Union countries that drafted the constitution, is that separately their governments have little say on the world stage. Together, they reasoned, the 25 EU nations could act as an economic and political counterweight to the United States and China.

It has not worked out that way.

Many reasons account for the "no" votes, which have set efforts at European unity back years.

Social policies, such as euthanasia in the Netherlands, were seen as at risk in a European "superstate." Economic policies, like the 35-hour work week in France, would be turned over to the European Union, the "no" voters said, and the generous welfare states prominent in many parts of Europe would be diminished considerably.

While those issues may fall under the umbrella of social and economic issues, they also define the countries - the Dutch liberalism, the French desire to "work to live" rather than living to work.

"The Dutch people are very pro-European and know the advantages of that," said Bart Jochems, a spokesman and top aide in the Netherlands' Foreign Ministry. "But they also like being Dutch, they felt that was at risk, and so you saw the vote."

The vote was an overwhelming "no," 63 percent to 37 percent, a striking loss for backers of the constitution made all the more surprising because the Netherlands, like France, was a founding member of the European Union.

But a common theme among voters in France and the Netherlands - and in Britain, where a vote scheduled for spring is now doubtful - is that the European Union, as it is, is not what people signed on to.

It has grown quickly, most recently opening to 10 former Eastern Bloc countries and is considering admitting Turkey, which many EU members oppose. To many people in Europe, that has already led to a loss of what has long defined their countries.

In Amsterdam, immigrant Turks and Moroccans seem as plentiful as native Dutch.

Utrecht, a picturesque university town that retains its medieval character and architecture, is something like a suburb of Amsterdam, where liberal Dutch mingle with Muslim women in traditional conservative dress. It can trace its history more than 1,300 years.

Just 30 minutes to the north is Amsterdam, which overseas may be best known for its debauchery but which in the Netherlands is a beacon of the country's liberalism.

Sex shops and bars where marijuana and hashish are sold make up whole quarters of the town, but they are more likely to be filled with British or American visitors than they are by the Dutch.

"For me, and I think even for most Dutch, we don't care about the drug laws but people fear that it could be the beginning of other losses, like euthanasia," said Vanessa Moes, 24, a law student at Utrecht University who voted for ratifying the constitution. "People voted like we're going to lose our identity as a country, but I don't believe that."

Many Europeans do, though. And much of the reason is the increased immigration that has coincided with the growth of the European Union. Many worry that the EU constitution would allow for further relaxation of immigration laws, adding to social and economic stresses.

"The EU has been like a train going and going and more and more people hopping on board, and people want to pull the brakes," said Jaap-Ronald Blom, a 29-year-old physician who lives in Utrecht and debated which way to vote on the constitution nearly until he was in the voting booth. He decided to cast a "yes" vote.

The Netherlands, a country of 16 million people, needs the economic heft that would come if it were more part of a bloc. But Blom understands why people voted "no," he said, attributing the magnitude of the rejection to mistrust of the government here, which had urged the referendum's passage.

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