THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Officials in the Netherlands launched a last-ditch media offensive to persuade Dutch voters to support the European constitution, but the possibility of that happening looked a lot less likely after French voters rejected the charter.
A second electoral defeat in four days, and by another founding member of the EU, would be a stinging rebuke to the bloc's decision makers.
In France, voters were upset over the direction Europe is taking as it tries to compete with the more cutthroat economies of the United States, China and, increasingly, India — thumbing their noses at arguments the constitution would bind Europe into something similar to the United States and raise its profile in world affairs.
"A `no' vote here would send a clear message to EU leaders," said Dutch analyst Mendeltje van Keulen at the Clingendael Institute for International Relations (search). "The gap between the voters and the politicians has only grown in recent years, despite attempts to close it."
Unlike France's referendum, which was binding on the government, the Dutch vote is advisory. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's (search) governing party said Monday it will accept a "no" verdict only if turnout reaches at least 30 percent and if 55 percent of those who vote reject the charter.
The Dutch leader went on television to ask Dutch voters to make up their own minds on the constitution. Balkenende said he was disappointed with the French outcome, but that the ratification process would continue.
"The French vote gives all the more reason (for the Dutch) to vote yes because the constitution is the way forward," he said. "Every country has its own responsibility and that means the Dutch voters will have to make up their own minds."
But all polls indicate the Dutch are leaning toward rejection, in spite of the government's last-minute pleas.
Political analysts predicted the French result will further motivate the "no" camp while discouraging supporters from bothering to vote. "There will be less restraint to vote 'no' over fears that the Netherlands will isolate itself," said Eddy Habben Jansen, a director at the Center for Political Participation.
As in France, the Dutch "no" campaign caught fire on both the left and right. Some leftists are concerned a more consolidated EU could erode Dutch social policies like tolerance for euthanasia and marijuana, while rightists fear the country would lose control over immigration policy.
Most of the 25 EU countries have left ratification to their parliaments, where lawmakers are often more welcoming of the constitution than the public.
Nine countries — Austria, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain — have already ratified the constitution, and EU leaders vow the process will continue in other members despite France's fierce "no."
"When faced with difficulties, it is where we expect our politicians to show determination and vision to rally together for Europe," EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after the defeat in France.
The French rejection sent the euro into a slide against the dollar that continued Tuesday. The euro dropped more than a cent to below $1.24, with concern over the future of European integration rattling traders ahead of the vote in the Netherlands.
The vote in the Netherlands is now being closely watched in Britain, where "Euroskeptic" sentiment is even stronger than in France or here. Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday it was too early to tell if Britain would go ahead with a referendum on the constitution as planned, calling for a "time for reflection."
EU leaders, who signed the constitution in October, contend it would streamline operations and decision-making and improve democratic accountability. It also would create an EU president and foreign minister, raising Europe's profile on the global stage by giving it the ability to speak with one voice.
The constitution itself makes clear all EU members must ratify the text for it to take effect as planned by Nov. 1, 2006. But it also says EU leaders will discuss what to do if, by October 2006, four-fifths of member states have ratified the treaty but even one has "encountered difficulties" getting it accepted.
In France, polls suggested many voters wanted to punish a government they feel has failed them.
Responding to that sentiment, President Jacques Chirac (search) on Tuesday fired Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and replaced him with Dominique de Villepin (search), formerly the interior minister.
Villepin, 51, was Chirac's foreign minister during the Iraq war. He is best known for his eloquent defense of the French stance against a U.S.-led invasion.
About 55 percent of French voters opposed the constitution. A poll by the TNS-Sofres firm suggested that fear for jobs and a sense of being "fed up" were the main reasons to say no. France has a 10 percent unemployment rate and those in the "no" camp have claimed the constitution was too market-oriented to protect citizens, growing vulnerable in an expanding EU.