Viewing cable 05THEHAGUE1434, NETHERLANDS/EU: WHERE'S PLAN B? DUTCH BRACE FOR
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|05THEHAGUE1434||2005-05-26 16:04||2011-01-17 00:12||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy The Hague|
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available. 261646Z May 05
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 THE HAGUE 001434 SIPDIS E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/23/2015 TAGS: PREL PGOV NL EUN SUBJECT: NETHERLANDS/EU: WHERE'S PLAN B? DUTCH BRACE FOR "NO" VOTE ON EU CONSTITUTION REF: A. THE HAGUE 393 ... 33343,5/26/2005 16:46,05THEHAGUE1434,"Embassy The Hague",CONFIDENTIAL,05THEHAGUE393,"This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available. 261646Z May 05 ","C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 THE HAGUE 001434 SIPDIS E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/23/2015 TAGS: PREL PGOV NL EUN SUBJECT: NETHERLANDS/EU: WHERE'S PLAN B? DUTCH BRACE FOR ""NO"" VOTE ON EU CONSTITUTION REF: A. THE HAGUE 393 ¶B. 5/25 ""POLITICS IN THE NETHERLANDS"" E-MAIL REPORT AND PREVIOUS. Classified By: AMBASSADOR CLIFFORD SOBEL FOR REASONS 1.4(B) AND (D). ¶1. (C) SUMMARY: With polls showing a clear majority opposed to ratifying the EU Constitutional Treaty, the Dutch government is belatedly stepping up its efforts to obtain a ""Yes"" vote in the June 1 referendum. At the same time, Prime Minister Balkenende is actively distancing his government from the results of the referendum and seeking to shift responsibility for dealing with a defeat to Parliament. Opponents and supporters of the Treaty agree that voter dissatisfaction with the Dutch and European political establishment is a major motivation for ""No"" voters. Both sides concede that a ""Yes"" vote is not completely out of the question, and at least one recent poll suggests that the tide might be starting to turn, but there is very little time to turn the electorate around. The Balkenende government will almost certainly survive a negative outcome, but such a public defeat will provide a clear boost to populist/nationalist politicians hoping to capitalize on public discontent in the runup to parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007. END SUMMARY. ¶2. (C) With all recent polls showing the ""No"" camp likely to prevail -- possibly by 60 percent or more -- in the June 1 referendum on the EU's Constitutional Treaty, the Dutch government is stepping up its ""Yes"" campaign while seeking to minimize the political consequences of a defeat. In several recent interviews, Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende reminded voters that the referendum was a parliamentary initiative initially opposed by the two largest members of his coalition government; a vote against the referendum, therefore, would not be taken as a vote of no-confidence in his government. Some observers give Balkenende credit for at least making an effort in support of the Treaty despite his skepticism about the referendum while the main opposition Labor Party/PvdA, which was largely responsible for pushing the referendum legislation through parliament, has been missing in action. Far more, however, blame Balkenende and his government for incompetently managing the issue from the beginning. Geert Wilders, the maverick Dutch populist politician who has become one of the most visible leaders of the ""No"" campaign, told POLCOUNS on May 24 that the government's missteps had probably done more to boost the ""No"" vote than any efforts by opponents of the treaty. WHY VOTE NO? BECAUSE WE CAN. ----------------------------- ¶3. (C) Both camps agree that many ""No"" voters are basing their decision on factors unrelated to the Treaty itself. Frustration with Balkenende (whose personal popularity ratings are at an all time low, hovering around 16 percent) and anger at a perceived Dutch-European political elite that pays little attention to the concerns of common citizens are clearly fueling the ""No"" movement. A group of students from Leiden University told the DCM on May 18 that they intended to vote against the Treaty precisely because Balkenende was ""telling them to vote for it."" Strong supporters of the treaty such as Lousewies van der Laan (foreign policy spokesman for the Liberal Democrat/D-66 party) and Jan Gooijenbier (a public relations/marketing expert brought in to head the government's Referendum Task Force) admitted in recent meetings with POLCOUNS that overcoming the public's lack of confidence in the current Dutch leadership and EU institutions has been the hardest hurdle for the ""Yes"" camp to overcome. During his current bus ""tourNEE"" of the Netherlands, Wilders claimed to have been surprised by the ""level of hate"" routinely expressed for Balkenende's government, and agreed that for many the vote would be ""all about a lack of trust."" The ""No"" campaign also draws strength from an eclectic mix of parties on the left (Socialist Party) and right (including the two small Christian parties) worried that a strengthened EU will reduce their ability to influence domestic politics, as well as a host of single-issue voters opposed to Turkish accession, increased immigration, and expansion of the EURO zone among other issues. ¶4. (C) The fact that this will be the first national referendum in modern Dutch history, and that it is technically non-binding, has also played strongly into the hands of the ""No"" camp. According to Gooijenbier, the government's own polls suggest that many voters see the current referendum as an opportunity to vent retroactively on earlier decisions made without their input, such as switching from the guilder to the EURO (a move many blame for subsequent inflation) and EU expansion (including possibly to Turkey). The polls also show that most voters believe that their vote in a non-binding referendum will not be taken seriously, and therefore feel comfortable casting ""protest"" vote without regard to consequences. (Note: Although the referendum is legally non-binding, most political parties have announced formula under which they would ""accept"" the results; the Christian Democrats, for example, insist on a 30 percent turnout with 60 percent opposed; others, such as the Liberal Democrats (pro) and Socialists (con) will accept any result regardless of turnout or margin of victory.) Recent statements by opposition leader Wouter Bos suggesting that a ""No"" vote could lead to a second referendum were quickly seized upon as further evidence that the political establishment will ignore the people's will if faced with a negative vote. Foreign Minister Bot's suggestion in parliament on May 23 that those wavering about the Treaty should stay home rather than vote no further reinforced the view that the government just doesn't ""get it."" OVERSOLD AND UNDERWHELMED ------------------------- ¶5. (C) The ""Yes"" camp has been plagued from the beginning by disagreements over strategy and message. While some advised minimizing the impact of a negative outcome by seeking to reduce turnout (ref a), others -- including Justice Minister Donner and Economic Affairs Minister/Deputy Prime Minister Brinkhorst -- engaged in scare tactics, suggesting that a ""no"" vote could return Europe to an era of chaos and war no seen in the past 60 years. Not surprisingly, the public reacted negatively to both tactics. The media and public have also been quick to point out apparent divisions within the cabinet, as when Finance Minister/Deputy Prime Minister Zalm reportedly refused to join the rest of the Cabinet in personally handing out pro-treaty leaflets outside the Prime Minister's office. (Balkenende recently began hosting daily strategy sessions with key cabinet officials, including Bot, Zalm, Brinkhorst, and State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Atzo Nicolai to ensure all agree on a single, coordinated message.) Even more damaging has been the failure of the government and the opposition PvdA party to develop a coordinated strategy in favor of the Treaty. During a recent meeting with Ambassador Sobel and POLCOUNS, Wouter Bos openly admitted that he found it distasteful to be seen cooperating with the government as the head of the opposition, even though a vote against the treaty would essentially harm both as members of the political ""establishment."" ¶6. (C) The government was restrained from campaigning aggressively in favor of the Treaty both by Dutch tradition and by the referendum legislation, which tasked the government with administering the referendum in a neutral fashion. As noted ref. a, the ""revelation"" that the government had established a contingency fund of 1.5 million Euros to counter negative campaigning triggered a mini-scandal in parliament. The government's over-reliance on ""information"" -- its first pro-Treaty hand-out consisted entirely of excerpts from the Treaty text -- and speeches by government officials to pitch the treaty backfired, with voters reacting indifferently to the first and negatively to the second. Farah Karimi, a Green-Left member of parliament and one of the three original sponsors of the referendum legislation, told POLCOUNS on May 26 that most members of parliament ""never dreamed"" that the Dutch public would reject the treaty, so did not make any provisions for a ""pro"" campaign. THE FRENCH CONNECTION --------------------- ¶7. (C) All parties agree that the results of the May 29 referendum in France will influence the Dutch vote, but opinions vary on exactly how. Arno Brouwers, a journalist for Volkskrant, jokingly told POLCOUNS that a French ""Non"" could be the only thing that would convince the Dutch to vote ""Ja,"" as it would give Dutch voters a new target for expressing their frustration. Geert Wilders similarly suggested that some ""no"" voters might reconsider their view of the Treaty if the French reject it, reflecting the commonly-held view that what is good for France in the EU is generally bad for the Netherlands. A more likely scenario, however, is that a negative result in France would convince many voters to remain home on June 1, lowering overall turnout but probably raising the ""no"" percentage. According to Gooijenbier, the government has developed two campaigns to follow the French vote referendum. If the vote is positive, the government will stress that ""280 million Europeans are already in favor of the Treaty;"" if not, then the theme will be along the lines of: ""Don't let the French tell you how to vote."" According to the British Embassy, Prime Minister Balkenende has also quietly asked Prime Minister Blair to weigh in with Dutch voters following the French vote, either by traveling to the Netherlands (doubtful, according to the UK Embassy) or by recording a direct appeal for broadcast. The option of canceling the Dutch referendum is not on the table. ENOUGH TIME TO TURN THE TIDE? ----------------------------- ¶8. (C) Despite most polls showing a growing a clear majority opposing the treaty, both camps are stepping up their campaigns in the final days before the referendum. The government, having recently defeated a court action intended to prevent it from spending additional funds on the ""Yes"" campaign, has just budgeted an additional 7 million Euros for an intense pro-Treaty print and radio advertising blitz, according to Gooijenbier. (Gooijenbier noted that he had also proposed television advertising, but that the Cabinet decided engaging in ""partisan"" television advertising was ""a bridge too far."") Familiar national figures, including all four living former Prime Ministers, have started to campaign actively in favor of the Treaty. Gooijenbier cited a May 23 poll showing a slight decrease in the number of ""No"" voters (from 60 percent to 57 percent) and increase in ""Yes"" voters (from 40 percent to 43 percent) although they still constituted a majority) as evidence that Dutch voters might be starting to ""wake up and pay attention"" to the possible consequences of a negative vote. Van der Laan, who last week predicted a ""colossal no"" in a press interview, privately suggested that the government might just barely pull ""a rabbit out of a hat"" but was not optimistic. Wilders also conceded that a dramatic turnaround in voter sentiment was not out of the question, and put the chances of a ""Yes"" vote at about 20 percent. THE DAY AFTER ------------- ¶9. (C) Partly to convince voters to take the referendum seriously, the government has deliberately refrained from engaging in debate over what would happen in case of a ""No"" vote, and in fact appears to have no ""Plan B."" Parliament will almost certainly insist on a debate on the Treaty -- which is already in Parliament and should be ratified before November 2006 -- within days of the referendum, regardless of the outcome. If there is a negative result, the government will probably argue that it has done its duty and any further steps are the responsibility of Parliament, which forced the referendum on the government in the first place. Balkenende has stated for the record that he and his government will not resign in the event of a negative result, although some observers speculate privately that State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Atzo Nicolai, as the Cabinet member directly responsible for European integration issues, might choose to leave the government. A Nicolai resignation would probably not bring down the government, however, as under the coalition agreement his party (Conservative Liberal/VVD) could replace him from its ranks. Unless turnout is so small as to be absolutely meaningless, any effort to proceed with ratification following a ""No"" vote would provoke a more serious political crisis, as coalition partner the Liberal Democrats/D-66 is on the record refusing to accede to such a plan. Most likely, the government and parliament will decide to delay definitive action for some period of time to see how the Treaty is received in other European countries holding referenda. COMMENT: ------- ¶10. (C) On paper, the pro-Treaty coalition is impressive: 85 percent of parliamentarians, all major unions and employer associations, most major media, and many notable public figures have come out in favor of the Treaty. The fact that these traditional sources of influence have failed to produce a positive majority is viewed by many as proof that the populist ""revolution"" against the traditional political elite begun by Pim Fortuyn continues to be a major factor in Dutch politics. While a ""Yes"" vote is not impossible, there is very little time left to turn around a deeply skeptical and angry electorate, and the government has so far shown little skill in guiding public opinion effectively. There is little question that Balkenende's coalition government will survive a ""No"" vote in the short term, as all three partners are down in the polls and desperate to avoid early elections. That said, a highly visible defeat in the referendum would clearly undermine Balkenende's standing among his European colleagues and would heighten the domestic perception of him as a weak and ineffectual leader. Although the Labor Party/PvdA, as the main opposition party in Parliament, might gain a few poll points at Balkenende's expense, the real winners are likely to be populist, nationalist figures like Geert Wilders, who will seek to transfer the anti-establishment, anti-EU votes into a real political force prior to the 2007 elections. SOBEL ",