Will the 'mother of all treaties' end in tatters?

10th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

Brussels is watching nervously as France and the Netherlands line up to put the EU Constitution to public test. Nicola Smith looks at the document's contents - and how it is being received across Europe.

On 15 April, the European Constitution was blasted into orbit from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan.

A French or Dutch 'no' could wreck the EU Constitution

The European Commission said it was a symbolic gesture that the document "will not only encompass Europe but the whole world".

But those who are now growing weary of the media obsession with the controversial new text might wish it would stay up there.

With precarious referendums looming in France and the Netherlands looming, debate about the constitution has reached fever pitch.

As the 29 May French referendum approaches, Brussels quivers at every minute variation in public opinion, on tenterhooks that one of the EU's founding members could reject the 'mother of all treaties'.

Dutch Prime Minister insists he is "optimistic" the constitution will receive a "ja" when the Netherlands votes on 1 June. But at the same he and his ministers have been dropping none-to-subtle warnings about the negative consequences if the public here reject the document. 

Why all the fuss? Does the constitution really make a blind bit of difference to a plumber from Somerset, a used car salesman from Toulouse or a cheese-maker from Gouda?

And why does the 474-page document of dry legal text inspire such vitriolic opposition in one camp and fanatical allegiance in another?

What's in the treaty

If the mantra of British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be believed, the drafting of the new constitution was merely a "tidying up" exercise to help the EU work more efficiently.

The task of the 105-strong convention of European and national politicians who penned the text was to bring together existing European laws and treaties into one document to make it simpler.

EU decision-making procedures have also been streamlined to make it easier to create policy in a European Union of 25, soon to be 27, countries.

The constitution includes a 50-article charter of fundamental rights, which guarantees not only freedom of speech and religion but also the right to shelter, education, collective labour bargaining and fair working conditions.

The new text does away with national vetoes in some key areas, such as immigration and judicial cooperation, but it does not touch sensitive areas such as taxation or foreign and defence policy.

The introduction of qualified majority voting in more policy areas will also allow groups of countries to forge ahead on a particular issue, as in the case of the single currency.

Nine out of ten claim never to have read the document

The post of EU foreign minister has been created, but countries will have the ability to opt out of aspects of the EU's foreign policy and pursue their own national agenda.

A European President will be chosen by EU leaders to preside over business for five years.

He or she will have limited powers – acting more as a spokesman rather than having Executive control – and will replace the current cumbersome system where EU business is conducted by a different country every six months.

True believers will for the first time also be able to enjoy an official EU anthem – based on Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy', and celebrate Europe day on 9 May.

A constitution that unites...and divides

The true scope and extent of the constitution's present and future powers has divided Brussels' political elite.

According to British Labour MEP and fervent supporter of the constitution, Richard Corbett, a housewife from Leeds should care about the document because it "brings clarity" to the workings of the EU.

"If you want something that will actually work, that is more accountable, and has better guarantees on citizens rights then we need a new constitution," he said.

Including the charter of fundamental rights would make the EU legally bound to respect them and give citizens more clout to take cases to the Europea

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