Approval of EU constitution not assured in UK, France

16th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

LONDON, Feb 16 (AFP) - The European Union constitution faces a tougher battle for approval in Britain, France and the Czech Republic than it will in Spain, where it is being put to a referendum on Sunday.

LONDON, Feb 16 (AFP) - The European Union constitution faces a tougher battle for approval in Britain, France and the Czech Republic than it will in Spain, where it is being put to a referendum on Sunday.

However, the constitution may still survive any rejection by the British, French or Czechs, experts say.

Between now and mid-2006, the constitution should be approved without difficulty by a majority of the EU member states, either by a referendum or by a vote of parliament, with the latter the case already in Lithuania, Hungary and Slovenia.

For now, Britain is the only country where opinion polls show opponents of the constitution outnumbering its supporters, but Prime Minister Tony Blair has been adept enough to put off the referendum until the end of the process, probably in mid 2006.

Julie Smith, deputy director of the Centre of International Studies in Cambridge, said Blair is "not convinced that he can win over the electorate. He watches the opinion polls and he keeps quiet."

Smith warned: "that is a road to disaster. You can't win a referendum if you're not willing to make the case," especially in the face of a heavily eurosceptic news media.

However, Neil O'Brien, head of the "vote no" organisation, predicted "the debate will become very hot after the general election" expected in May.

For now, O'Brien said, the "government are not campaigning, they don't want to talk about it, they know it's very unpopular," but will likely step up the campaign afterward.

The referendum result, he conceded, "could be closer than people expect," and there was "no room for complacency on our side."

Recent opinion polls indeed show that a good quarter of Britons would vote no.

However, in September, a Mori poll also showed that 19 percent were undecided, 23 percent leaning against, but ready to change their opinion if they were convinced the constitution were good for Britain.

There were also 23 percent leading in support of it, but ready to change their mind if they were convinced it was not good for the country.

"A large group in the middle could be persuaded by an effective campaign," Smith said.

However, she said, Blair's unpopularity and the increasingly noisy euroscepticism in Britain complicates the work of the yes camp.

Since his decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, "the average voter is sceptical about what is coming out of number 10," Blair's office at Downing Street, Smith said.

The yes campaign would fair better if another Labour heavyweight, such as finance minister Gordon Brown, led the way, she added.

The main hope for the yes campaign rests with Britain's presidency of the European Union in the second half of the year, according to Ceri Williams, spokesperson for "Britain in Europe," the organisation launched in 1999 by Blair and Brown.

"The presidency will give us a background in which to campaign and take a positive message on Europe," Williams said.

Financing for the yes campaign is far less than for the no campaign, which is benefiting from companies which are mainly hostile to Europe.

However, Williams said "every time the British people faced the question to continue our leading role in Europe, the people have voted yes."

Smith is more cautious.

Blair, heading the EU presidency, "will be able to show Britain at the centre of Europe, Britain leading Europe, it is a way of encouraging positive thoughts among the electorate."

However, "the British have never picked up the European ideals," Smith added.

"The deeper the integration has gone, the more powerful the EU institutions have become, the more British voters say why is this happening, we didn't want to be part of this."

In the Czech Republic, the parliament, which is divided over the constitution, has still not passed the special law needed to organise a referendum.

Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross' pro-European centre-left coalition enjoys a narrow majority in the House of Deputies and is not in a position to muster the required three-fifths majority to secure parliamentary ratification of the constitution.

In January, the Czech Republic's eurosceptic right-wing opposition Civic Democrats (ODS) introduced a bill to hold a referendum on the constitution before the end of the year.

Gross has repeatedly said he would like a referendum to be held simultaneously with parliamentary elections in June 2006, arguing that an extensive awareness campaign about the constitution has to be arranged first.

Of all the worst-case scenarios, only a French "non" would seriously call into question the EU's future, according to experts.

Although the latest opinion polls indicate that is unlikely, President Jacques Chirac has expressed concern that the issue could be confused in voters' minds with Turkey's application to join the EU.

The vast Muslim nation finally secured a green light in December to start EU membership talks later this year.

But that decision has apparently only fueled criticism that the EU may be overstretching itself.

France, one of the original six countries which founded the EU's forerunner, is already worried about its waning influence over a 25-member bloc in which English is increasingly the lingua-franca.


Subject: French News

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