German parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved the EU constitution on Thursday. While the treaty has been at the center of impassioned public debate in France, it has failed to ignite similar interest in Germany.
The constitution was supported by government and opposition
With 569 yes votes, 23 no votes and two abstentions, the German Bundestag approved the new European Union Constitution.
The result masks growing public unease at the EU's direction. But reservations about the constitution have failed to gain momentum, partially due to widespread ignorance of its finer points.
The anti-globalization activist group Attac has now launched a campaign entitled "Europe: No to the EU Constitution Treaty; Yes to a social, democratic and peaceful Europe," which it hopes will boost public awareness of an issue that has so far gone largely ignored.
One of its signatories is Jörg Huffschmid, director of the Institute for European Economics and Social Policy (EWIG) at Bremen University. "The German ratification process is a stitch-up," he said. "The politicians are simply going ahead with its implementation."
A worker put up posters that read "Europe Deserves a Yes", in reference to the upcoming referendum in France, on the EU constitution in the southern city of Marseilles, France, Wednesday, May 4, 2005. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)
While other European nations have been mulling over the pros and cons of the EU Constitution in recent months, Berlin has managed to sweep the issue under the carpet.
"If we were to hold a general knowledge quiz about the contents of the European Constitution in France and Germany," pointed out Huffschmid, "Germany would come out of it pretty badly."
"Not even the media are paying any attention to the matter," said Janis. A. Emmanouilidis, EU expert at the Munich Center for Applied Political Research and an advisor at the Foreign Ministry's European Department.
"The best compromise"
Berlin's vote comes one day after Austria's lower house of parliament voted overwhelmingly for the charter -- with its upper house expected to approve the treaty right before France holds its hotly-contested referendum on May 29.
Slovakia also approved the constitution Wednesday, bringing the number of states to have approved the treaty up to seven. In order for the constitution to take effect, it must be ratified by all 25 member states.
Speaking in the Bundestag on Thursday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder underlined the importance of Germany voting in favor of the EU constitution, which is designed to define the powers and institutions of the EU, outline divisions of responsibility and streamline decision-making.
"I ask you not to be too petty or too obsessed with the detail of the odd half sentence that may not completely meet our expectations," said Schröder.
Belgian tricolor and European Union flags are seen on at the side entrance of the renovated Berlaymont Commission building in Brussels, Thursday Oct.21, 2004. EU Commission President Romano Prodi inaugurated the renovated Berlaymont building which will become the home of the European Union's head office after years of scandal and chaos surrounding the restoration. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
The charter makes some changes in leadership -- the commission president will continue to lead the body responsible for proposing and executing EU laws. But the European Council will now elect a president for a two-and-a-half year term, renewable once. The current system of rotating the presidency every six months will be discontinued. The constitution also establishes the new position of foreign minister, who will speak on the EU's behalf on agreed common policy.
"The Constitution is not perfect, but it's the best compromise we were able to reach," said Emmanouilidis. "It makes the EU more effective and more democratic."
But it's not without its critics. "German concerns have risen with reports of organized crime and wage-undercutting from eastward expansion at a time when the German economy is not doing well," said Henrik Uterwedde, deputy director of the German-French Institute, in an interview with Reuters news agency.
While the majority of Germans say they support the treaty, the general image of the Brussels administration within Germany has seen better days.
The press has been quick to highlight tales of local workers losing out to cheaper eastern European arrivals, while Chancellor Schröder's repeated run-ins with Brussels reflect popular disapproval of a series of EU plans.
Together with French President Jacques Chirac, Schröder has been an outspoken critic of the EU's services directive, which Germans fear will allow eastern European service firms to undercut them. Berlin says its contributions to the EU budget subsidize lower corporate tax among new entrants and put German jobs at risk, promoting calls for harmonized tax rates.