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Europe

Spain, Portugal to Hold Referendums on EU Constitution

Spain and Portugal have announced that they will hold referendums on the European Union constitution, increasing the chance that a single national vote will block its passage.

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Spanish PM Zapatero trusts the constitution will be approved.

The constitution, which lays down a new set of rules for the enlarged European Union, may have been approved by all 25 EU leaders last week, but it still must win approval either by a vote in parliament or referendum in each member state for it to come into effect.

The decision by Spain and Portugal brings the number of countries that have said they will or are likely to hold a referendum to eight, increasing the risk that the citizens of a single nation will block the document's passage.

Among the countries holding referendums is the United Kingdom, where it's expected the new constitution will face its biggest battle. British Prime Minister Tony Blair may not hold the referendum until 2006, in order to give his Labour government ample time to persuade the country's traditionally euroskeptic citizens to vote for the document.

Three countries -- France, the Netherlands and Poland -- remain undecided on the question of whether to hold a referendum.

Confident of approval

Spain, a traditionally pro-European country, is confident that its citizens will approve the constitution. "My intention, as we set out in the election manifesto, is to hold a referendum so that all Spanish citizens can express themselves about the new text of the constitution," said Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. "I hope this referendum takes place as quickly as possible and that Spain will be among the first EU countries to ratify the constitution."

A recent poll by the state Center for Sociological Investigations showed that 77 percent of respondents were at least somewhat in favor of the EU.

A majority of Portuguese citizens are also likely to vote in favor of the constitution. A Eurobarometer poll released by the European Commission in February showed that 58 percent of Portuguese considered a constitution "vital" for EU institutions to function properly.

Portugals Premierminister Jose Durao Barroso

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso (photo) told Portugal's TSF radio that the referendum would probably be held early next year. "I have always said a referendum should be held if two conditions are in place: firstly, if there is a new constitutional treaty, and secondly, if that treaty brings truly new and relevant matters for the future relationship between Portugal and Europe," he told reporters. "Those two conditions have been met."

Fighting apathy

The EU constitution must be ratified by the end of 2006 so it can take effect in 2007. Earlier this week, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who headed the EU Convention charged with drafting the document, urged all EU leaders to do all they could to sell the constitution to their electorates.

He said that the recent low voter turnout for the European Parliament elections was an indication of how much work needs to be done to foster interest in EU matters. "It's clear that people are just not interested and possibly totally ignorant of what is at stake," Giscard d'Estaing said. "It's a good text for Europe, a good text for Europeans."

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