AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Dutch voters worried about social benefits and immigration overwhelmingly rejected the European Union constitution (search) Wednesday in what could be a knockout blow for a charter meant to create a power rivaling the United States.
With nearly all votes counted, the charter lost 62 percent to 38 percent, an even worse defeat than the 55 percent "no" vote delivered in a French referendum Sunday.
"The Dutch people have spoken tonight. It is a clear result. Naturally I am very disappointed," Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (search) said in conceding defeat in his campaign for ratification.
The charter was designed to provide such trappings of statehood as a flag, a president and an anthem for what has largely been an economic bloc, while creating a more integrated political entity of 450 million people with a bigger economy than America's.
But the idea has proved increasingly polarizing, with opponents worrying about loss of national control and identity to a stronger, unaccountable EU bureaucracy at the heart of a superstate. There also is anxiety about mostly Muslim Turkey (search) possibly becoming an EU member.
Nine EU states have ratified, but the charter needs approval from all 25 states to take effect in late 2006, and the "no" vote in both France and the Netherlands — founding members of the bloc — was a clear message that European integration has gone awry.
"We must acknowledge that many Europeans doubt that Europe is able to answer the urgent questions of the moment," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, leader of the EU's richest nation and a strong proponent of the charter. "The crisis surrounding the ratification of the European constitution must not become Europe's general crisis."
French President Jacques Chirac (search), whose support for the constitution was repudiated by his people, said the vote "shows strong expectations, questions and concerns about the development of the European project."
Although the referendum was consultative, the high turnout and the decisive margin left no room for the Dutch parliament to turn its back on the people's verdict. The parliament meets Thursday to discuss the results.
Some 62 percent of Dutch voters turned out, far exceeding expectations in a reflection of the heated debate in recent days.
Dutch liberals worried a more united EU could weaken the country's liberal social policies, such as tolerating marijuana use, prostitution and euthanasia. Conservatives feared losing control of immigration rules that have been tightened to stem an influx from Muslim countries amid ethnic clashes.
Geert Wilders, a prominent opponent who argued that the charter would open the Netherlands to more migrants and lead to Turkey joining the EU, said voters were angry about "the country's identity slowly being eaten away."
"I'm incredibly happy that the Dutch voter has rubbed their noses in it," said Wilders, referring to the governing elite.
It was the first chance the Dutch public had to rule on their country's deepening involvement in Europe, since the process had never been an issue in any domestic election. The result was not only a rejection of the EU's expanding power over their daily lives but also a repudiation of the politicians who many voters believe are sacrificing the Dutch identity.
"I think it's the end of the story now that two important countries have said no," said Wouter Bos, the Dutch opposition leader who joined Balkenende in supporting the charter.
Asked about the vote, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the constitution was a matter for the Europeans.
"The United States is committed to a Europe that is united and strong, and one that works in partnership with us to address our common challenges. We've done that in the past, and we want to do that as we move forward in the future," McClellan said.
At EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged member governments not to make any hasty judgments about the ratification process and wait for the bloc's mid-June summit to assess the constitution's situation.
"We have a serious problem, but we must continue our work," Barroso said.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said EU leaders needed to analyze what went wrong, but said they should press on. "This is not the end of the process for the constitution and not at all the end of European integration," he said.
Early in the day, Balkenende had said he was optimistic the Dutch would defy the pollsters and vote on the merits of the constitution rather than their general feeling of malaise.
"The question is: Do we want to have progress today or do we choose a standstill, and for me the choice is obvious," he said.
But voters marking paper ballots with red pencils or pushing electronic buttons clearly had a different view.
At an Amsterdam school, where about a dozen people waited to vote, a reporter had difficulty finding anyone in favor of the constitution. One said the charter would bolster Europe: "I think it's a good thing if there's a strong Europe," said Jaena Padberg. "It's good that our rights will be secured."
Others were clearly leery of the constitution. They feared that the Netherlands, a nation of 16 million people, would be overwhelmed by a European superstate even though the Dutch pay more per capita than any other country into the collective EU kitty.
Nicolas Ilaria, an immigrant from Suriname, said he was voting no. "In principle, I'm against bureaucracy and I don't believe everything is working well now," he said.
Like many others, Ilaria voiced an underlying mistrust of Dutch politicians. "The government is not telling the truth about what is in the treaty," he said.
"Things are going too fast," said Maarten Pijnenburg, in the "no" camp. "There's not enough control over the power of European politicians" under the new constitution.