*NEWS*EUROPE’S CONSTITUTION HURDLES
*NEWS*EUROPE’S CONSTITUTION HURDLES
2005-03-19 at 9:45:00 am #10939EU constitution hurdlesThe European Union is on the verge of launching an
unprecedented exercise in public consultation.
At stake is the approval of its first constitution by all 25 member states.
About 10 countries will hold referendums, with the first one in Spain on Sunday.Most Spaniards are expected to say “Yes”.
But no one knows what will happen if, over the next year or so, one or more
countries actually reject the EU constitution.
The problem is that, according to polls, only 11% of EU citizens have
actually read the “mother of all EU treaties” or have any idea what it is all
First of all it is supposed to simplify all the previous five treaties – but
in the English version it still runs to a massive 474 pages.
It streamlines the way decisions are taken – and who does what – in an EU
that now includes 25 countries, rather than the original six. And it gives the
enlarged EU a higher profile in the world, with its own president and foreign
The constitution also includes a charter of fundamental rights for EU
citizens, such as non-discrimination and the right to strike.
It does away with national vetoes in some key areas such as police and
judicial co-operation, but it does not bring much change in other sensitive
areas, especially taxation, foreign and defence policy – where national
governments keep their veto rights.
So overall, what is really in it for the man and woman in the European street
- all 450 million of them?
The Vice-President of the European Commission, Margot Wallstroem, is in
charge of selling the blueprint to the European public.
“I think one of the more important changes is that it establishes the rights
that you have as a citizen of the EU, the fundamental rights that are very, very
important,” she says.
“So I think that from a symbolic point of view, it’s a fundamental change and
it establishes the common values for the EU. From a policy content point of
view, the changes are minor, they are really not very important.
“But it establishes also the way we should take decisions in the future. With
25 member states in an enlarged EU, how can we be effective, how can we be more
open and democratic in the future?”
Referendums are democratic, but notoriously blunt instruments. It is
practically impossible to say a simple “Yes” or “No” to complex documents such
as an EU treaty.
Kirsty Hughes, an expert on EU matters, thinks that most people will not
actually vote on the precise contents of the European constitution.
“I think on the whole we can expect that the vote will be on
Europe,” she says.
“It may tend to be more a vote on whether people are in general happy with
the EU today rather than the specifics of the constitution. But I think that
will vary from country to country.
“In some countries, for instance we saw it with Ireland [a neutral country]
when they voted first “No”, then “Yes” to the EU’s Nice Treaty, they were very
bothered with the defence provisions of the treaty.”
For the moment, polls show that the most likely country to reject the
constitution is the UK.
Other countries where the result is in doubt are Denmark – which in 1992
rejected the Maastricht treaty by a margin of about 2% – and two of the more
eurosceptic new member states: the Czech Republic and Poland.
Hostility against the European constitution is also growing in two of the
EU’s founding members – France and the Netherlands.
“In the UK it would likely be a general negative reaction to the EU as a
whole, it wouldn’t be to specific provisions in the constitution,” says Kirsty
You cannot design a Plan B
beforehand, but you have to look at the reasons why there is a ‘No’ in one
member state and then it’s for the [EU] Council to decide what to do next
“It would reflect the growing scepticism in the UK.
“I think in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic it’s perhaps more to
do with the fact that they’re newcomers to the EU, they’ve only signed up to one
treaty and at least some parts of those countries’ publics and politicians ask,
‘Why should we have to change already?’”
In the Netherlands, there is public concern over immigration and the
integration of the Muslim community.
Similar fears are reflected in France, where many oppose their government’s
support of Turkey’s eventual admission into the EU.
There is also rising social discontent, both over the French government’s
changes to the 35-hour week and to a proposed European directive that would open
up public services to eastern European companies employing cheaper labour.
The French only narrowly approved the Maastricht Treaty (by a 2% margin in
1992), so what if they reject the constitution?
Kirsty Hughes says working out how to resolve such a scenario will not be
easy – especially when the constitution is meant to appeal to the public.
“There’s never been a situation where the EU has negotiated a treaty and not
managed to push it through,” she says.
“Will there be a core Europe of a group of countries going ahead?… The EU
will still be there, the single market will carry on functioning, but there will
be a hiatus for one or two years, with big, big political discussions about what
are the options now.”
So does the EU have a Plan B?
Margot Wallstroem says not.
“But of course this is a question that many people ask, what would happen?
The only thing we can do is to explain what happens procedurally if there is a
‘No’ in one member state,” she says.
“Then of course the European Council would have to look at the reasons why
there is a ‘No’. It might be because in one small member state actually the
voter turnout was so low that it might be worth investing in having another
debate and maybe even a new referendum. While if in a big member state there is
a clear ‘No’ on a substantive issue, that changes the whole debate.”
In the past, both Ireland and Denmark held two successive referendums to
ratify a particular EU treaty. Both passed only after changes to the text of the
treaty, answering specific concerns. That will be much harder to do in the
constitution, which sets out the fundamental rules of the game.
But for the first time, it allows a country to leave the EU if it so wishes,
or indeed be excluded from the bloc if it fails to respect its basic values.
Margot Wallstroem says she does not anticipate either of these provisions
“Today, it’s such an integrated co-operation between the member states in the
EU that I can hardly imagine how this would actually happen that a member state,
and a big member state at that, would say, ‘Now we leave this co-operation’.”
Difficult to imagine, but not impossible. The UK, already outside the
mainstream of European integration – the euro and the Schengen border-free zone
- may be the last to hold a referendum.
If, as many think, it ends up rejecting the constitution, after all the other
24 EU members say ‘Yes’, Kirsty Hughes can only see one possible scenario.
“I think it’s going to be very problematic. I haven’t talked to anybody who
thinks you can ask the British public to vote twice,” she says.
“I think that would cause uproar in the British media. But that means you’re
going to face a very serious political crisis. You’ll have a lot of people in
the UK, maybe the Conservatives, saying legally we can stay in, legally they
can’t throw us out. But the political pressure will be to renegotiate, to have
some sort of special partnership, for Britain to be like a big Norway.
“And that’s going to be a big crisis in Britain as much as in Brussels.”
The disadvantage of being like Norway is that a country would have to pay a
hefty contribution and follow most of the EU’s rules in order to keep up
economic and trade links with the bloc, while not actually taking part in
decision-making. Whether any of the EU members will want to go that far, is a
question no one can answer now.