un autocollant pour le "Non" à la Constitution est visible, le 09 mai 2005, sur le panneau de la place de l'Europe à Paris, en marge d'un rassemblement organisé pour le pluralisme des médias dans la campagne sur le referendum du 29 mai prochain sur la constitution européenne.

The dutch and french NOs to the referenda on the the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe

mai 2019

In 2005, several countries organised referenda on ratifying the proposal for a European constitution. After the Netherlands and France voted ‘no’, it became clear that the constitution would not be implemented. What are the particularities and similarities between the motivations behind the ‘no’-votes in France and the Netherlands ? How can they be understood in their national contexts ? The rejection of the European constitution is a first clear sign of reluctance of European citizens vis-à-vis further European integration. The event should therefore be understood as part of a trend of which we have witnessed several other symptoms, such as the Brexit vote and the revival of nationalism in recent years.

By Timo Stibbe and Hande Taner

Comparing the French and Dutch Contexts: The Why of the ‘No’

Why did the majority of Dutch and French voters reject the European Constitution? What explains the differences and similarities between the referenda and in which context should they be understood? When taking a look at some media coverage from May and June 2005, there are a few headings that noticeably stand out, such as: “Dutch say 'devastating no' to EU constitution”1 and “French No Vote on European Constitution Rattles Continent”.2 Media coverage adequately reflected the large unexpected shock that was created as a result of traditionally pro-European countries rejecting the European Constitution. To dig deeper and to find out about the causes that motivated ‘no’-voters in both countries, we looked at several academic studies and formulated a two-tier guide to understanding the Dutch and French rejections: issue-voting and campaign effects.


Traditionally, the focus of understanding voter behaviour is on analysing issue salience. What are the issues that voters care about, and move them to vote in favour or against a question in a referendum? This is also named “issue-voting”, which explains voting behaviour as a reflection of voters’ underlying attitudes towards certain topics. Issue-voting in European referenda thus illustrates voters’ underlying Eurosceptic attitudes towards European integration that influenced their voting behaviour. Hobolt and Brouard (2012) argue that while conventionally, issue-voting was used to explain either pro- or anti-European attitudes, the 2005 referenda posed a wide array of complex issues that voters had to decide on. As a result, the ‘no’-votes must not be understood as a black-and-white explanation of why the Constitution was rejected.

Comparing the French and Dutch contexts demonstrates the complexity of this reality. Both contexts were marked by different issues. In general, the French were more concerned about the social threats brought by the European Constitution, while in the Netherlands, a perceived cultural threat was more salient. In France, the main threats were perceived as targeting the French social welfare model. The Constitution was seen as a neo-liberal Anglo-Saxon model that included a strong focus on liberalising the free movement of services, and as such, would undermine the French model. Furthermore, the economic and social consequences of enlargement and Turkey’s possible accession to the European Union were amongst the reasons why French voters said ‘no’. Rising unemployment, a general anti-government feeling, and speculations of corruption in the European Union’s institutions, were amongst the salient issues in France that moved many voters to vote against the Constitution.

In the Netherlands, there was a broad consensus in favour of the Constitution amongst the political establishment that formed the government. Yet the population showed a stark contrast to the elite’s pro-European attitude. In contrast to France, the European Constitution was seen as a threat to cultural identity and national sovereignty. Some of the salient issues in the Netherlands at the time were dissatisfaction with the speed of integration and the devaluation of the Dutch gulden against the German mark after the euro’s introductions. For instance, the fact that, financially, the highest net contributor to the EU’s budget at the time was the Netherlands, was largely used by the ‘no’-campaign to blame the government for excessive support to the EU while not receiving many of its benefits.3

  • 3. Startin and Krouwel, 73

Campaign Effects

Besides issue-voting, it is crucial to look at the effects of campaigns which further explain the role of issues in voting behaviour. As explained above, the 2005 referendum was not a reflection of a simple yes or no vote to Europe. Indeed, campaigns run by political parties were crucial in attuning to salient issues. In France, the campaign was long, impassioned and intense, while in the Netherlands, the campaign started little less than a month before the referendum took place. The French referendum was initiated by Chirac, but it was tactically run by the ‘no’-campaign. Because of its length and intensity, it had a polarising effect and was able to activate issue preferences. Hobolt and Brouard explain that partisanship had not a large influence in France. In other words, party attachment did not play a key role in the vote.

The contrary was the case for the Netherlands: the majority of the voters were in fact swayed by their party. If voters were in support of their government, they voted yes, while attachment to opposition parties predicted a ‘no’ vote. In the Netherlands, the referendum on the Constitution was initiated by a parliamentary resolution, and it was the first since 1797.4 Starting and Krouwel use this factor of lack of experience to explain the mainstream parties’ unsuccessful referendum campaigns. Thus, when the campaign started about one month before the referendum, the mainstream political parties were more on the defense rather than providing strong arguments in favour. The parties against the Constitution effectively used their campaigns and the media to gain votes.

A particular aspect of campaign effects can be found in France. As the social threat aspect of the Constitution was the most salient to the French, the ‘no’-campaign strongly emphasised the neo-liberal portrayal of the Constitution. The classic example of this is the instrumentalization of former Dutch European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein’s “plombier polonais” or “Polish plumber” expression, which he used in the context of a directive on liberalising the internal market for free services. While the phrase was first used by Philippe Val in a Charlie Hebdo issue, and popularised by Philippe de Villiers to describe cheap Eastern European labour, it was Bolkestein’s usage that caused considerable controversy. Bolkestein infamously said that he would love to get a Polish plumber for his house in northern France, as he was not able to find a competent French plumber5. This expression was instrumentalised by the ‘no’-campaign, despite the fact that Bolkestein’s proposed Directive was not part of the draft Constitution.6 This shows once more the importance of a strong campaign to influence voters’ behaviour, something that was absent in the Netherlands.

The ‘no’-votes as part of a larger trend

Evidently, most discourses comprising the debate on the European Constitution in 2005 touched on issues that were not or only indirectly related to the Constitution itself. Rather, they reflected other concerns of political parties and voters about domestic or European topics. In France, voters expressed their concerns about unemployment, the free movement of services, and the level of the welfare state. In the Netherlands, arguments on national culture, sovereignty, the speed and costs of further European integration and ‘social dumping’ dominated the campaign process. These apprehensions were not new, nor did they seize to play a role after 2005. It makes sense, therefore, to employ a broader perspective on these matters and analyse how they can be understood beyond the scope of the Dutch and French referenda.

This approach implies that we find is plausible to assume that the grievances of European citizens, as expressed in their rejection of the European Constitution, were partly directed, albeit indirectly, at the state of the Union in general and not necessarily at the content of the Constitution proposal. As indicated before, the concerns expressed in the context of the Constitution proposal were not new. The arguable flaws of European integration were felt years before. At its inception, the founders of the European project indicated their willingness to develop social and fiscal integration alongside financial integration in a non-binding manner. This went fairly well until the oil crisis of the 70s forced the European welfare states to make severe budget cuts and reform their public sector organisations, thus directing their attention to merely domestic needs. This shift started the misalignment among Member States in basically every field except the market. Furthermore, the expansion of the European Union after the turn of the century introduced states into the European Union with different levels of welfare states. In an attempt to protect their welfare states against the perceived threat of devaluation, Member States became even more sceptical towards integration. The expansion introduced the inequality between Member States which facilitated the phenomenon of social dumping, in which employees make use of the freedom of services but remain bound to their national labour market system and the wages they get paid. Hence the ‘Polish plumber’ that offers cheaper labour, which may be unfair but completely in accordance with EU legislation.

What we are left with, are the consequences of having a single market and the four freedoms of goods, capital, services, and labour, without being able to respond to the inevitable challenges that occur due to this organisation. People in Europe are not offered the same social protection or working conditions. The lack of fiscal policy in the EU causes countries to offer low taxes in order to attract big companies and therewith creating job opportunities, leading to a downward spiral of tax standards in Europe. These flaws seemed to reflect why people voted ‘no’ in France and the Netherlands in 2005. They felt that European integration was not heading in the right direction. Eurobarometer survey results underlined this conclusion. A survey version of 2017 showed that an EU average of 58% was optimistic about the future of the EU, whereas only 25% thought the EU was heading in the right direction.

The dissatisfaction expressed in 2005 remains relevant today, as the underlying problems are still unsolved. After the financial crisis and the refugee crisis, Member States are even more reluctant and sceptical towards cooperation, and showcased a downright lack of solidarity in the context of the refugee crisis. People have further displayed their lack of faith in European cooperation by voting for nationalist parties in virtually each Member State in recent years. The problems are also acknowledged by the EU itself in the person of the Jean-Claude Juncker who vowed to make Europe more social at the start of his term. Nonetheless, the EU needs cooperation of the Member States to be able to streamline these issues on a European level, as much as the Member States need the EU to tackle them domestically. In terms of competences, both the EU and the Member States remain handicapped as it is.

We therefore identify the rejection of the European constitution in 2005 as a first strong sign of citizens’ decreasing faith in the European Union in its current form. Understood as such, it fits in a larger narrative which ought to be fully understood by European politicians should they wish to accelerate the integration process once more. Only by looking at the complete picture can the structural flaws of the European project be identified and addressed. This picture exists of more than the problems discussed here. However, by looking at the circumstances of the 2005 vote, politicians can start charting the faults of the European system and make plans to remedy them. This is why the 2005 vote is still relevant for European decision-makers today, arguable more than ever now, with the European Parliament elections in sight.

Références bibliographiques

CRUM, Ben. Learning from the EU Constitutional Treaty: democratic constitutionalization beyond the nation-state. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York : Routledge, 2012, xvi-214 p. (Routledge advances in European politics,
Notice détaillée : <http://catalogue.sciencespo.fr/ark:/46513/sc0001222531>
FARRELL, David M.. SCHMITT-BECK, Rüdiger. Do political campaigns matter? campaign effects in elections and referendums. London ; New York : Routledge, 2002, XX-215 p.
HENLEY, Jon. WINTOUR, Patrick. WATT, Nicholas. « France delivers its judgment, and Europe is plunged into crisis ». The Guardian, 2005-05-30,
Disponible sur : <www.theguardian.com/world/2005/may/30/eu.france> (Consulté le 09-04-2019).
Voir aussi
In this June 16, 2015, file photo, French far right leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, center, poses with other members of the far right after a media conference at the European Parliament in Brussels. At the European Parliament, where elections are due in 2019, many say the need for action against hate speech, and strong sanctions for offenders, is long overdue. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)
Political parties from the mainstream center-right and center-left have traditionally dominated the European Parliament. However, times are changing, with an increase in far-right and Eurosceptic MEPs elected and the recent formation of far-right groups in the European Parliament, including the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) led by Marine Le...
© Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Bibliographie réalisée par Léo Montaz, responsable de la bibliothèque du Campus de Sciences Po à Reims.