Dutch voters prefer "nee", Latvia says "yes"

European leaders may have to scrap the proposed EU constitution after Dutch voters rejected it by a massive margin, voicing their concern over dwindling national identity in a rapidly expanding union and increasingly powerful bureaucrats.

The outcome in the Netherlands from the referendum Wednesday - three days after a similar vote in France - was likely to halt the European momentum, which had been welcomed by some as creating a new world power but disdained by others as smothering their cultures in a vast superstate.

With 99.8 percent of the ballots counted, unofficial results showed 61.6 percent voted "nee," while 38.4 percent said "ja." The level of opposition and turnout of 62.8 percent exceeded all projections.

Dutch newspaper headlines Thursday were as bold as the Dutch vote. "Devastating no," said the mass circulation Algemeen Dagblad, and "Rock solid no," wrote the popular Telegraaf. The Volkskrant daily called the outcome "the reckoning of the common man," and said "The Dutch were always at the forefront of European Union, but now the good kid in the class is the scene of an anti-European rebellion."

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende swiftly conceded defeat Wednesday night and said his government would accept the will of the people.

Parliament, which has the final say on ratification since the referendum was nonbinding, meets on Thursday to debate the results.

Balkenende acknowledged the huge gap that has emerged between the politicians and the electorate.

"The idea of Europe has lived for the politicians, but not the Dutch people. That will have to change," he said. "We will need to bring across the message that there are doubts here about the fast pace of change, the Dutch identity and other, financial, concerns."

The vote was seen by some as symbolic of an introverted attitude by the Dutch in recent years as they struggle do deal with issues such as integration, a shrinking economy and fears over Islamic radicalism.

It was the first vote held in the Netherlands on the Dutch involvement with Europe, and opponents spoke of a breakthrough for European democracy. The extent of the opposition was a shock to the political establishment which campaigned for the charter until the final hours of voting.

The treaty must have the backing of all 25 member states to enter into force in 2006. But with the clear rejections by two founding EU members this week, there seemed no hope for salvaging the constitution in its present form.

"The verdict of these referendums now raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in London.

Gerrie Elfrink, a young Socialist Party city council member said politicians had conceived Europe behind closed doors without consulting the people.

"We in Holland, we feel Dutch. We want to work together with France, Germany and England. But we want to be Dutch. Europe exists only in the minds of politicians in Brussels," he said.

"This is the first time in decades we could say something and we said, 'it's gone too far."'

Harry van Bommel, who led the no campaign for the Socialist Party, was cheered by hundreds of revelers as he arrived at celebrations in Amsterdam. "It's the people - who for 50 years had to keep quiet about the direction, structure and future of Europe - who won tonight."

Geert Wilders, a right-wing member of parliament whose tough line on immigration has attracted many of former Fortuyn voters, said he was "incredibly happy that the Dutch voter has rubbed it in the faces of the political elite in The Hague and Brussels."

Latvia on Thursday ratified the EU constitution when lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to approve its adoption.

The 71-5 vote in the 100-member Saeima, or Parliament, had been widely expected after the charter was approved in a first reading on May 19. Twenty-four legislators abstained or were absent.

Nevertheless, the future of the charter is in doubt after France and the Netherlands overwhelmingly rejected it.

ANTHONY DEUTSCH, Associated Press Writer

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