Ten Years after the French and Dutch ‘No’: How the Two Countries Reinvented their Relationship with Europe

Viviane Gravey |

Ten years ago today, the French voted down the European Constitution Treaty, which was supposed to replace existing EU Treaties and institute key changes such as the appointment of a EU foreign minister. This was followed by an even stronger ‘No’ in the Netherlands three days later. These ‘No’ votes succeeded where the Danish 1992 ‘No’ to Maastricht and the Irish 2000 ‘No’ to Nice had failed, forcing EU leaders to come-up with a new reform Treaty, the Lisbon Treaty.

At a time when the UK is gearing up for the in/out referendum on EU membership, this post reflects on the 2005 referendum campaigns and their aftermaths in France and the Netherlands. It highlights key similarities – the ‘No’ votes revealed how disconnected European elites and the general population had become – as well as central differences in the ways the two countries re-engaged with Europe since these votes. I explore these differences in “European strategies” by looking at French and Dutch engagement with EU environment and climate policy.

From pro-Europe to confused-about-Europe

The 2005 referendums revealed the thin consensus on Europe among both citizens and elites in France and the Netherlands. In 2005 the main French left party, PS (Parti Socialiste), was divided with the ‘Yes’ staunchly defended by the infamous former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the ‘No’ upheld by current Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.[1] Both main right and left wing parties stood officially together for ‘Yes’, leading to an infamous picture of Francois Hollande and Nicholas Sarkozy – both party leaders at that time – standing next to each other.

Hollande Sarkozy image

Sources:  France Culture, Paris Match and Grasset

In the Netherlands, Eurosceptic parties remained at the margins throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but put increasing pressure on the mainstream parties[2]. The clear ‘No’ vote showed how the Dutch political elite (and the Dutch media) were out of sync with the public, leaving the political class “divided and confused[3]”.

The referendums thus left the two countries’ relations with Europe in shambles – pushing these member states toward disengagement with European affairs. This is because the referendums made the EU toxic for the French socialist party, striving to mend the breach between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides, and for the Dutch parties in the subsequent 2006 election, who avoided raising the European issue. The referendums opened the way for a more openly critical attitude to the EU among political elites in both countries. In the Netherlands this critical view was at its strongest under the first Rutte government (2010-2012), the country’s first minority government supported by the Eurosceptic party PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid). In France the 2012 election saw both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande going “EU-Negative”, with Hollande criticising the European Budgetary Pact and Sarkozy pledging to revise Schengen rules.[4]

Reengaging with Europe – two distinct strategies

The two countries’ trajectories diverged when it came to re-engaging with Europe. Dutch positions on the EU before the referendum were often presented as paradoxical, “for, as well as against”. On the one hand, the Dutch turned more negative on defence cooperation, intergovernmental efforts in general, any favouritism for big member states and on migration policies. On the other hand, the Dutch policy supported economic integration and a strong European Commission – but also, conventionally, environmental legislation. After the referendum the Netherlands held on to their position, supporting further European integration only in certain areas.[5]

Recent Dutch governments have been strong advocates for subsidiarity and proportionality in EU actions, and for reduced EU ‘red tape’.  Over the last ten years Dutch influence on these issues grew,[6] while crucially EU environmental policies changed status – from favoured policy to potential ‘red tape’. For example, in 2009 the Dutch Prime Minister asked for a review of Nature Policies, in 2013 the Dutch Foreign Minister, Frans Timmermans, produced a subsidiarity review, and the Dutch government initiated the “Make It Work” initiative with the UK and Germany to review EU environmental legislation. The Dutch position on green ‘red tape’ grew more influential when Timmermans became First Vice President for Better Regulation and Subsidiarity in the Juncker Commission. Subsequently, the new Commission’s 2015 working programme came under criticism for hindering environmental policy expansion, and pledging to update key nature policies.

Whereas the Netherlands were instrumental in changing the way the Commission worked in the last ten years, France appears to have grown weaker in Brussels: this is supported by its weakness inside the European Parliament, a smaller number of high ranking French officials in the Commission and constantly changing European Ministers. France has long had a problematic relationship with EU environmental policies – from the opposition of its hunter lobby to the birds’ directive, to implementation problems on nitrates pollution from farm activities or to its fisheries’ impact on young fish stocks. Thus a weakened France could in principle have been good for environmental policies. But despite its decreasing weight in “everyday” Brussels, France still managed to influence EU environmental legislation at critical points – both positively and negatively. For example, Sarkozy’s 2008 European Presidency signalled a “return to Europe” – building on the success of the 2007 German presidency it yielded a deal on the Climate and Energy package. But one should not exaggerate the impact of this French “victory” for climate policy: France did not become a green leader after 2005. This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent 2013 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, where France opposed CAP greening, and thus undermined a key attempt to mainstream environmental policy in the EU.

Ten years later, it may be up to Laurent Fabius, then advocate of the ‘No’ to the Constitution Treaty, now head of Paris COP21[7] in December, to signal further French re-engagement with Europe. The climate negotiations offer the French another opportunity – indeed an obligation – to lead on environmental issues on behalf of the EU. But, irrespective of the outcome of COP21 and of the French flair for shining in high politics, the last ten years saw a degradation of French influence and engagement in Brussels, which will take long – and more than a successful COP! – to fix.

Lessons for the UK Referendum

While the UK situation differs considerably, the two referendums offer useful lessons: first, referendums cast a long shadow on national politics – it can be very difficult to return to ‘normal’ after a lost referendum. Second, although some issues may be given prominence during campaigns before a referendum, the outcome impacts all policies – thus, the UK in/out referendum is not ‘just’ about migration or even the welfare state. Finally no two referendums are the same: the variety of political systems in the EU means that different states will find their own unique way back in – or out – of Brussels.

[1] Previously, the French right had split on the narrowly won Maastricht Treaty referendum in 1993.

[6] See for example the diffusion of the Dutch Standard Cost Model across Europe and at EU level.

[7] Conference of Parties