Dutch Threat

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Everybody can find something to hate in the proposed E.U. constitution, even the tolerant Dutch. Socialists dislike its supposedly liberal tint; right-wingers resent the loss of sovereignty to Brussels; conservatives fear the document opens the door to Turkish E.U. membership; and die-hard integrationists think it's not federal enough. But in the ever-pragmatic Netherlands, which votes just three days after France, the debate has centered mostly on more concrete concerns: money and immigration. That grounding, however, doesn't imply consensus. The latest polls show the no vote increasing its lead. But France's decision could tip the balance. In theory, the constitution ought to be an easy sell in the Netherlands. The country of about 16 million citizens has a long tradition of successfully mixing social protection with world-beating commerce. But internally, the Dutch have been going through an identity crisis. The traditional model of tolerance and consensus politics was already shaky when anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn roared onto the scene in 2002 with his dictum that "Holland is full," just as the fat years of a decade of strong economic growth were waning. Since then, things have only got worse. Fortuyn's brutal murder by a radical environmentalist in 2002 seeded an instability that erupted anew last autumn when controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch-Moroccan who claimed to be avenging Islam. The Dutch economy, meanwhile, has shrunk over the last four quarters. In that fraught context, center-right Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende has earned the dubious distinction of heading the most unpopular government in postwar Dutch history, with an approval rating of about 20%. His government's defense of the constitution was late and clumsy. Foreign Minister Ben Bot, for instance, last month hazarded that the Dutch would eventually vote yes because "They are not stupid." Perhaps, but they're not happy, either, especially not with the euro or Brussels. Last month, the director of the national bank suggested that the exchange rate initially set for the conversion of Dutch guilders into euros in 1999 was inflated. Newspapers spoke of a "sellout of the guilder." Now, at least one-third of naysayers tell pollsters that "being against the euro" is one reason they reject the constitution. Adding insult to injury, after the Balkenende government fielded an austerity budget to remain below the E.U.'s deficit threshold, the rules were loosened at the insistence of big spenders like France and Germany. Meanwhile, anti-immigration politicians like Geert Wilders are inflaming concerns that the constitution will lead to the accession of Turkey to the E.U. It hardly matters that none of these issues genuinely relates to the constitution. "We just have to address the voters on the matters that they identify with," says Lousewies van der Laan, a parliamentarian for the small-government coalition partner D66. "If that is the euro or the accession talks with Turkey, so be it." But she and other yes campaigners have a lot of skepticism to overcome. "I just don't trust this Brussels government," growls Jaap, an Amsterdam truck driver who declined to give his surname, but says he'll be voting no. "If we give our rights away now, nobody will be back to ask for our opinion. It's a sellout." The wild card is how the French vote. Does a oui augur a ja? "I hear people say, 'What's good for France can't be good for us,'" says Van der Laan. That's one sign of just how far E.U. integration still has to go.