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European Leaders Seek to Salvage Integration


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

European leaders have called for reform of the European Union to continue despite Dutch voters' decisive rejection yesterday of a new EU constitution. That vote came just days after a similar decision by the French and it has thrown the process of European integration into doubt. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from The Hague.

(Soundbite of bell)

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

As people commuted to work on The Hague's tram system, many read newspapers with the headline: A Massive No. The strength of the message that Netherlanders had sent their leaders was still sinking in.

Mr. SOTRES KOTZ(ph): My name is Sotres Kotz. I'm working as a consultant. Well, I'm disappointed a little. It was a great thing we should have agreed upon. Surely, it's an emotional message. I think the process should have been started earlier.

KUHN: At a farmers' market downtown, teacher Emma Powell(ph) said she voted no. She said she was concerned about the Netherlands losing its sovereignty.

Ms. EMMA POWELL (Teacher): We have to suffer under the detailed law of Europe, all the details we have to do because of Europe says this and Europe says that. So you lose some independence.

KUHN: Dutch media saw the 62 percent majority against a new constitution as a serious political blow to the coalition government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. Shortly after the exit polls came out, Balkenende voiced his reluctant acceptance of the results.

Prime Minister JAN PETER BALKENENDE (Netherlands): (Through Translator) So, of course, we are not happy with this outcome. Dutch voters have sent out a clear, unambiguous signal and it must be clear that we shall, of course, fully respect this outcome.

KUHN: The vote was an unexpected eruption of public disaffection. Holland hasn't had a referendum in two centuries and opinion polls still show the public to be less skeptical of integration than countries like Great Britain and Denmark. Independent right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders has opposed the constitution and campaigned for stricter immigration policies. He said the vote showed a serious lack of communication.

Mr. GEERT WILDERS (Parliamentarian): Two-thirds of the people said no. Two-thirds of the parliamentarians were in favor of this constitution, and I can only conclude that there is an enormous gap between the political elite and the reality from the people on the street.

KUHN: The message of dissent was not just a domestic one. Leaders across Europe admitted that there was a larger crisis of confidence and that people seemed to feel that politicians were proceeding too quickly in moving towards European integration. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso insisted that the project of European integration was still worthwhile and would go on.

Mr. JOSE MANUEL BARROSO (President, European Union Commission): (Through Translator) I have to underline the importance of having a common approach to the next European Council and we should take advantage of that to show our determination to make progress in Europe because Europe is not the problem. It's the solution to the problems of its citizens.

KUHN: Nine member states have ratified the charter so far, but all 25 must approve it for it to take effect. However, the British government took a different stance. Douglas Alexander, Britain's minister of state for Europe, said European leaders now need to think things through.

Mr. DOUGLAS ALEXANDER (Minister of State for Europe, Great Britain): This treaty was agreed by 25 nations, but it's not for one country to declare it dead. So we think it's right to pause and reflect as the prime minister has indicated. We would want to hear from the French and the Dutch governments why they think their people voted no this week. We've yet to hear what they would regard as the way forward.

KUHN: Washington has responded cooly to developments here, saying only that it supports a strong and united Europe. Many Dutch supporters of the constitution had hoped a better integrated Europe would serve as a stronger counterweight to the US.

Parliamentarian Lousewies Van der Laan has campaigned for the constitution.

Ms. LOUSEWIES VAN DER LAAN (Parliamentarian): And if we want to also have our voice heard as Europeans, then it's clear that we're going to have to work together because America and China are not going to wait around for Europe to get its act together. They're going to go ahead and move forward.

KUHN: European leaders will meet later this month in Brussels to decide what to do next, whether to continue the process of ratifying the constitution or go back to the drawing board.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, The Hague. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.