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'Failed' referendum on European Constitution a blessing in disguise

European decision-making no longer a given
25 June 2013

The referendum on the European Constitution in 2005 awoke Parliament from its European dream. The Dutch populace’s ‘No’ vote against the Constitution was a setback for proponents of European integration, but one which was inevitable and essential. That’s the conclusion reached by historian Jieskje Hollander based on her dissertation, The incoming tide. Dutch reactions to the Constitutionalisation of Europe (1948-2005), for which she’ll be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Law on 4 July. Hollander interviewed several ministers who were involved in these issues.

After the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established in 1952, the Dutch government consistently sought to achieve ever more far-reaching European integration until 2005. Due to an amendment to the Dutch Constitution in 1953, there was barely any fundamental parliamentary debate about this, not even when Parliament itself began asking more and more questions about the need for and desirability of all these steps. Hollander: ‘The decision to organize a referendum in 2005 stemmed from a genuine concern about the support for Europe among the Dutch, who had been shut out of the process for decades. Yet it was also a last resort by the House of Representatives itself to gain a grip on a process that seemed increasingly out of its control. That a majority of voters rejected the European Constitution was a bitter pill for Parliament to swallow, as a majority in Parliament was in favour of the Constitution and had actually done its best to make Europe more accessible to citizens.’


As one of the founders of the ECSC and an advocate of further unification, the Netherlands built up a reputation as a steadfast ally in the European integration process. Hollander: ‘This attitude originated from the traditional Dutch doctrine that we’re too small to manage on our own and therefore need to enter into alliances. This belief was so deeply held that the Dutch Constitution was amended in 1953 to give the government a broad mandate to conclude European treaties, even those at odds with the Dutch Constitution. After that the government’s standard motto had been, “If you say ‘A’, you have to say ‘B’, too.” In reality, the government had therefore already gone past the point of no return in 1953.’


Hollander notes that a number of political parties, including the Dutch Communist Party (CPN) and the small Christian parties, had always had doubts about this mandate, and the criticism began to be shared by a growing number of MPs starting in 1986. Still, the decision‑making process concerning European treaties was not formulated in line with this critical attitude. Hollander: ‘The problems which Parliament had with European policy were only magnified in later years. With this perspective in mind, it’s not strange that the Dutch decision-making process on European treaties became more and more controversial and resulted in a referendum.’

Tunnel vision

Although many people regarded the rejection of the European Constitution as a political defeat, this was, on balance, a blessing in disguise, says Hollander. ‘It’s good that the no-vote shook things up in the Netherlands. Rejection of the European Constitution forced the political elite out of its tunnel vision, in which greater European integration was deemed something automatic without any discussion about this. At last, academics and politicians could raise questions again about such subjects as Dutch sovereignty and whether and how this could be demarcated questions which are in keeping with a mature relationship between the European Union and its Member States. For that matter, the referendum has still not led to a reversal of the relevant 1953 constitutional amendment, and I don’t see that happening for the time being, either.’

Primary sources

Hollander was the first person to examine many primary sources about European decision-making, including debates in the Senate and House of Representatives, supplemented by interviews, including those with the ministers directly involved in such decision-making. ‘Most of the history has been written from the perspective of important men who negotiated treaties, that is, the perspective of the government and its diplomats. But I specifically looked at how Parliament responded to this.’

Curriculum Vitae

Jieskje Hollander (Franeker, 1983) studied Political History at the University of Groningen. She will be receiving her PhD from the University’s Faculty of Law on 4 July 2013. Her supervisor is Prof. L.W. Gormley, and her co-supervisors are P.A.J. van den Berg and R.G.P. Peters. This research is part of the the research project ‘Controversial Constitutions’ funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Hollander is currently employed by the Van Mierlo Stichting, the research department of the Dutch political party D66. The dissertation will be published as a commercial edition by Europa Law Publishing under the title Constitutionalising Europe. Dutch Reactions to an Incoming Tide (1948-2005.

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Last modified:13 March 2020 02.14 a.m.
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