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Referendums not quite in the bag

Posted by Helen Monday, November 01, 2004

(Warning: this is another UKIP-free posting.)

The signing of the constitutional treaty has been described as subdued, according to some of the media because of the “crisis” caused by Barroso’s retreat from the European Parliament. Possibly, some of the leaders who had gone to the jamboree in Rome did realize just how ridiculous the whole thing looked but, much more likely, they were thinking about the forthcoming ratifications.

The decisions they have to make to push this unwieldy document past suspicious electorates are several. First of all, they have to decide whether to go for a referendum or a parliamentary ratification. Most of those decisions have been made or half-made.

A parliamentary ratification is easier, as the various political elites will push the treaty through without the slightest difficulty. That, as the European political class is beginning to realize, stores up problems for the future in that the decision will not be seen as democratically acceptable, though perfectly valid.

A referendum, on the other hand, is fraught with difficulties. On the one hand, most governments are in a position to manipulate the campaign and to focus it on the “benefits” of the actual membership of the EU. This might be particularly effective in the new member states, who have only recently, though reluctantly (remember those low turn-outs) voted to go in and who may well still confuse “returning to Europe” with “advancing to the EU”, as President Václav Klaus puts it.

So the hope is that a basically favourable electorate will vote the treaty through. But there are problems. The whole process will take several months, during which texts of the Constitution will become available and some people, at least, will scan them and realize the various implications. News of that may spread and, coupled with other problems, such as the preposterous behaviour of the European Parliament, the much-discussed but unsolved “democratic deficit” and the continuing economic problems, will increase general discontent with the project.

The various government will then have to move away from the general feeling of well-being and try to concentrate on the Constitution itself and its "benefits". That, as we know, is likely to be quite fraught as the "disbenfits" become more obvious.

Take Poland, for instance. There, it has been confidently announced, the electorate has come round to the EU, particularly as some of the farmers are beginning to get their cheques under the somewhat inadequate CAP agreements. Following on from there, says the International Herald Tribune, about 75 per cent is now in favour of the Constitution as well.

The Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka, who seems to have more lives, politically speaking, than the proverbial cat, is a little less optimistic. He has said that there was a “considerable chance” that the Polish people will accept the Constitution. He may remember sundry episodes in Polish history when the Polish people proved themselves to be somewhat less than amenable to the instructions from on high.

The date for the referendum has not been set but preparations for it have begun. Even so, the Polish Foreign Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz has already sounded a somewhat uncertain note, pointing out that the document was “not perfect”, that there were problems with the voting system that had not been sorted out and, at the same time, there were still too many areas subject to unanimity, which could result in ineffectiveness.

On the one hand, he wants the EU to take more power to itself, to become more efficient, whatever that may mean; on the other hand he would like to see Poland have more say in whatever decisions are left to individual ministers. Presumably, the people of Poland, who regained their independence just over ten years ago, do not come into his equation. They might provide the unknown factor x, though.

Then there is Spain. Prime Minister Zapatero, in his eagerness to prove his European credentials and to ensure that the subsidies that have gone to Spain over the years, do not diminish, has proclaimed that his country will be the first one to ratify the new treaty. To that end he has called a referendum for February 20, confident in the usual europhilic tendencies of the Spanish people. As we have written before, these tendencies may not produce the right results when the text of the Constitution becomes available.

Another problem has emerged to plague Zapatero. Spain’s legal experts have pointed out that the EU Constitution may well clash with the Spanish one and it will be the Spanish one that will have to be amended. The decision on whether this is so will have to be taken by the Constitutional Court.

The process is not simple. In fact, it was made deliberately and understandably difficult after the Franco years. A major change of this kind would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers in two successive legislatures. Which means that the current legislature would have to endorse it, then dissolve itself; an election would have to be held, the new legislature would have to endorse the changes by the same majority in both houses and only then could the referendum be held.

Zapatero is pooh-poohing the whole problem, saying that he will hold the referendum first and then confer with the Constitutional Court, undoubtedly hoping that it will not try to undo the result. It is, on the whole, a risky game. If, as we keep being told, the Spanish electorate “has grown up”, they may not like being manipulated in this way.