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Europe

Ratifying EU Constitution Will Be a 'Tough Battle'

European Union leaders agreed on Friday to the final text of Europe's first ever constitution, but now comes the hard part: selling it to the people. Will British and Danish voters reject it?

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British euroskeptics don't want Blair to sign the EU constitution

In order to become legally binding, Europe's new constitution has to be ratified by the parliaments in each of its 25 member states. A handful of countries, including those with the most euroskeptical politicians, are planning national referendums that will put the final decision in the hands of voters. And that could prove to be an even tougher fight than the arm-wrestling and compromises that finally resulted in a final draft in Brussels on Friday.

Facing a difficult re-election campaign that could come as soon as next year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair isn't expected to hold a referendum anytime soon. In fact, he could delay the referendum vote until as late as 2006, but even that far off, it will still be a tough sell. "There is no need to rush it," Blair said Sunday, kicking off what he conceded would be a "tough battle" for the constitution.

EU Gipfel in Brüssel Verfassung Tony Blair

British Prime Minister Tony Blair at an EU summit in Brussels

"This treaty gives us the chance to play a vital part in decision-making at the heart of the European Union whilst it protects completely our right to set our taxes, run our foreign policy and defense and do the things that people want us to do," Blair said. The prime minister said the battle would be between "reality" and "myth." The fact is, he said, "we have kept control of taxes, of our policy on immigration, of defense, of foreign policy."

Most Brits against constitution

But a quick review of the polls show that the majority of British citizens do not agree with 10 Downing Street. A survey released over the weekend by pollster YouGov for the Sunday Times newspaper found 49 percent of Brits were against ratifying the constitution and only 23 percent supported it. Similar polls found greater dissatisfaction, with as many as 69 percent feeling the constitution would transfer too much power from London to Brussels.

Robert Kilroy-Silk

Robert Kilroy-Silk is about to enter European Parliament as head of the UK Independence Party.

British euroskepticism, or the idea that Brussels is transforming into a super state with little transparency, also pervaded this month's European elections. The anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party carried 16-percent of the vote, and it's leader pledged to wreak havoc with the European Parliament. On Sunday, the party's leader, former talk show host Robert Kilroy-Silk (photo), compared Blair to Neville Chamberlain, the former British prime minister who famously claimed to have secured "peace in our time" with Nazi Germany in 1938, offering a preview of the nasty wrangling in store for the coming months. "It's appeasement," he said. "There's Tony, he's waving a piece of paper saying, 'It's okay, I've only given a little bit of our sovereignty away."

The fallout from the European election has been a public relations nightmare for Blair, who has said withdrawing from the EU would be disastrous. "At this moment in time, when Europe is actually changing, when there's growing support for Britain's position in Europe, to get out of the European Union or marginalize ourselves in decision-making would just be an extraordinary act of foolishness," the prime minister said.

Britain's opposition Conservative Party, which fears the establishment of a European federal state in Brussels, has called for an immediate referendum. Blair also faces EU skeptics within his own Labor Party ranks. A splinter group of Labor politicians has established an action group called "Labor Against a Super State."

Other countries follow suit

But Britain isn't alone in calling for a referendum. Denmark and Ireland have said they will hold referendums, and Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy are likely to follow suit. Passage in those countries is anything but certain: Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty, paving the way for the euro, in 1992 and Ireland vetoed the Nice Treaty, which forged the path to enlargement, in 2001. The treaties passed on second votes in both countries, but only after Denmark was given "opt outs" from Maastricht euro provisions and the EU pledged to Ireland its military neutrality would be respected.

For its part, Germany does not plan to hold a referendum. Though members of the opposition Free Democratic party as well as the Green party have called for a popular vote, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has rejected the idea, saying that it, like all other treaties, should be ratified by Germany's parliament, the Bundestag.

After the constitution is signed, a move that will likely happen later this year, it must be ratified by the parliaments of all 25 member states within two years. Experts say that if one country rejects the constitution, it may be modified, but if two or more reject it, its ratification would be highly unlikely.

In order to appease the more euroskeptical voices within the European Union, like Britain and Denmark, the final constitution text preserves sensitive national veto rights on issues pertaining to defense, taxation and foreign policy. The question now is whether those changes will go far enough to unite a European Union that is divided by countries promoting more federalist policies in Brussels -- like Germany and France -- from those who want to preserve more sovereignty, like Britain and Denmark.

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