Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Ratification roundup

Two disparate sources, reporting about two adjoining countries, on separate days, end up telling basically the same story about the EU constitution ratification.

Firstly, our old friend Xinhuanet tells us that the majority of Czechs are not interested in it. The Hospodárske noviny daily, in Slovakia, meanwhile says that the public know little about the constitutional treaty and discussion about it is insufficient.

In the first instance, a survey carried out by the Czech Social Research and Study Center suggests that the 86 percent of the population had no interest in the constitution, two thirds said they had heard of it but knew nothing more than that; one in five had never heard of it and only 17 percent had limited knowledge of it.

As for the Czech Republic's entry into the EU last year, three quarters said their lives had not changed at all, nearly one fifth said their lives became worse, and only 5 percent said their lives had improved.

In Slovakia, though, the situation is subtly different. Politicians themselves are saying that there is no need to explain the treaty to the population, as it will be ratified by parliament.

But public opinion polls suggest that public interest in a referendum is growing. There is also comment that, while accession to the EU was accompanied by a massive information campaign in Slovakia, very little is being said about the new treaty.

Martin Urmanič, spokesman for Pál Csáky, the deputy prime minister for European Affairs, is saying that the government will not allocate extra financial resources for an explanatory campaign, leaving the EU commission a clear field to pursue its own "information campaign" on the issue.

Csáky's spokesman thinks the text of the constitution is too complicated and it will be difficult to explain its core messages. However he offers a solution to the public: "Whoever is interested and has some time can read the text on the Internet at the website of the Government Office".

At the opposite side of the Union, Spain's referendum campaign is in full flow, although anti-constitutional campaigners have managed to prevail on the country’s electoral commission to force the government to change its aggressively pro-constitution slogan.

Undeterred, socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is actively defending the constitution, arguing that it was good for the European economy and civil liberties. Working with the leader of Portugal's opposition Socialist Party, Jose Socrates, the pair is jointly pushing out supportive opinion pieces in popular newspapers.

Socrates is fulsome in his praise for the constitution, declaring that: "It is much more than a simple legal text… It is the result of much effort, of a long historical process and, above all, of the will of the European people to advance together towards a common project."

Spanish finance minister Pedro Solbes is also getting in on the laudatory act, telling his own party: "We are entering a new phase in Europe, (introducing) elements of greater efficiency but which are also more humane," adding that the constitution would create a "more fraternal Europe".

At the heart of the evil empire though, in darkest Brussels, Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has backed away from a referendum, having lost the majority he needs to get it through parliament.

Over the weekend, his social-liberal coalition partner, the Spirit party, made a political U-turn and decided to drop its previous support for the referendum, claiming that it was concerned that it would be hijacked by the "far-right" Vlaams Belang party campaigning against Turkish membership of the EU.

More likely, they are concerned that, with the VB part opposing the constitution, there might be a chance of the referendum going the wrong way, leaving the ruling parties to adopt the standard “European” solution of never having a referendum unless the result is already assured.

In Brussels also, the EU parliament is also doing its best to conform with European democratic "norms", with DUP MEP Jim Allister complaining that anti-constitution voices are being discriminated against.

The toy parliament's constitutional affairs committee is sending a delegation of MEPs to Westminster today and no one who opposed the constitution has been included.

The delegation is to hold discussions with the House of Commons select committee on Europe and the corresponding House of Lords committee. Allister claims that the delegation has been deliberately gerrymandered to suppress the voice of dissent on the committee.

He says: "I'd like the Westminster MP’s to know that they are only being permitted to hear the voice of Europhiles. So much for the era of equality, democracy and rights which supporters of the Constitution claim it will guarantee."

To add to the confusion, we have another pro-constitution campaign. After the "no", the "yes" and the "yes-no" groups setting up, we now have the "Yes-buts".

They are fronted by an organisation which calls itself the "Newropeans" and boast for their patrons a galaxy of European political figures, including Chirac and Prodi.

They have written an "open letter to civil society leaders of the European Union", asking for support in launching a "large trans-European campaign" entitled "Yes to the EU Constitution But with Democratization next on the EU Agenda". More simply said, it claims, the slogan is: "YES to Europe, BUT with Democracy on top!".

Its aim would be to "convince voters to support the EU constitution by showing them that a sufficient mobilisation, around this motto and concrete actions, can force the EU leadership to be serious about an EU democratisation starting now."

With all that democracy flowing around, it is hard to see how the constitution can fail to succeed.

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