Putting the Constitution to the Test | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.02.2005
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Putting the Constitution to the Test

This Friday in Spain, the EU Constitution faces the first of ten national referendums. Though it is expected to pass in Spain, observers say it's anything but a sure thing elsewhere.


Referenda give European citizens an unusual amount of influence

On April 15th, a copy of the European Union Constitution will hitch a ride with a Russian rocket into space. Brussels apparently wants the extraterrestrial stunt to prove to the world that around half a billion Europeans from 25 countries are all unitedly striving for "peace, freedom and prosperity." But, many Europeans might wish the document just stayed there.

Discontent and general confusion regarding the document that aims to streamline bureaucracy in the 25-member bloc and chart the course Europe will take in the future have made the constitution a difficult sell for European Union leaders. Last week, French President Jacques Chirac and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero urged a gathering of about 2,000 Spaniards to give the new document a chance.

First of 10

The constitution “has anchored freedom and democracy on the continent,” said Zapatero. “It will mean that war and dictatorship will disappear forever from Europe.”

EU Verfassung Symbolbild

The constitution was put together by 150 delegates

On Feb. 20, Spain will be the first of 10 of the EU's 25 member countries to put the constitution up to a referendum. The populations of Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and, perhaps most importantly, France and Great Britain will follow in 2005 and 2006. Opinion polls indicate that Spain will approve the constitution. But whether the other countries will follow is anyone’s guess.

"It's a national-driven process, which makes it quite challenging and unpredictable," said Sebastian Kurpas, a constitution expert at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

The document is the product of more than 16 months of work by a group of European parliamentarians, advisors and 150 other delegates, and was completed in July 2003 and blessed by EU leaders last November. It establishes a permanent president of the European Council, a body comprised of EU leaders, and combines what were two foreign representatives into one.

What's it all about?

The far left has rejected it as a global capitalist charter without adequate social protections, while the far right and nationalists have attacked it as a blueprint for a European "superstate" that would give too much power to Brussels.

The average European citizen, however, seems to have little idea what it's all about. A recent poll by the EU organization eurobarometer revealed that 33 percent of the EU citizens polled had never heard of the charter.

"It's a confusing and sometimes a contradictory document," said Kurpas. "You are always in danger of getting stuck in details and missing the grand picture."

A European litmus test

With euroskepticism on the rise, each national referendum will give Brussels a good idea of how it stands with the voting country, and observers are worried domestic politicians will hijack the referendum for their own purposes. In France, for example, social policy is likely to dominate the referendum. In Great Britain, it's likely to be immigration and asylum politics.

EU Parlament verabschiedet EU Verfassung

The EU Constitution is expected to face stiff opposition in Britain. These British European parliamentarians give a taste what's to come.

"Even irrelevant issues can be become divisive in a referendum debate," writes Daniel Keohane in a briefing paper published by the Center for European Reform in London. "Defense policy was paramount to the Irish debate on the Nice treaty in 2001, even though the defense provision in that treaty did not affect Ireland's cherished policy of neutrality."

What does a "no" mean?

Should one or more countries vote no on the constitution, one of three things can happen. Depending on the size and stature of the country in the Union, the government will either put the constitution back to vote at a later date, send the document back to the drawing board or agree to back out of the constitution and re-negotiate its EU membership. The latter is unlikely if, say, France were to say no.

Government leaders are working hard to keep something like that from happening by emphasizing the progress membership has brought to their countries.

"In a country like Spain, government is making a link to the big economic benefits that have come through Europe that have modernized Spain," said Kurpas. The strategy gives people "a vision that Europe is a benefit."

Referenda as a democratic tool

Over the past two months, the Spanish government spent €7.5 million on an education campaign including Spanish celebrities that seems to have had some effect. A little over 51 percent of the population is in favor of a constitution, 10 percent more than before the campaign got underway.

Der spanische Premierminister Zapatero spricht auf deiner Kampagne zur EU Verfassung in Madrid

Spains Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero speaks at the opening of the European Constitution campaign in Madrid Thursday night Feb. 3, 2005 in front of people holding signs reaing SI (YES).

One thing the referendums do is give European citizens an unusual amount of direct involvement in a major EU decision. Observers think more referendums might be a good way to increase awareness and involvement by Europeans in the EU in the future.
"Following so many referenda on the constitutional treaty, it will be difficult for governments not to put other kinds of EU issues to a public vote," argued Keohane. He added that "in the future, it will be harder for critics to claim that the EU is inherently undemocratic."

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