Friday, February 18, 2005

A highly forgettable experience

The Times today comes up with an interesting observation – that the EU constitution is being "sold" in different ways in different countries, almost as if in each member state it is a different document.

From Dublin to Warsaw, it says, governments are tailoring their portrayals of the constitution to maximise its appeal to their particular electorates, while opponents are doing exactly the opposite.

Inevitably, given that the treaty contains 300 pages of legalese and over half the public in EU member states professes no knowledge of it, there is ample scope for presenting the constitution any way one wants. This is rather at odds with the idea that the purpose of the constitution was to provide one clear, simple, unambiguous definition of the Union and its powers.

The Times identifies as the most glaring contrast, the difference between the way Britain and France are presenting the treaty. Chirac is calling it the "consecration of Europe" as a super-welfare state along French lines. Blair, on the other hand, depicts it as a guarantee of British sovereignty, complete with vetos and inviolable "red lines".

The Spanish, who go to the vote on Sunday, are being told that the treaty is designed to lock in the country's new prosperity with a continuing stream of euros from Brussels. Similarly, Poland is looking to continued largesse, with farming subsidies helping to create a positive view of the constitution.

The Irish are also looking to the promise of further aid-driven prosperity, while opponents see its defence element as a threat to the country’s neutrality.

The Danes and Dutch, on the other hand, are looking at the treaty as a dangerous open door to Turkey, and Muslim immigration. The populist Danish People’s Party, in particular, is mobilising opposition by depicting the constitution as a vote on Turkish entry, although this is still being negotiated. However, prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende is painting it vaguely as a "charter for our common future" that is designed to prevent war.

In Luxembourg, the treaty is viewed as a welcome step towards political union, an opinion shared Belgium, while the German public sees a political voice for Europe to face down the United States.

Wolfgang Schuessel, Austria’s chancellor, argues that the constitution protects smaller member states, an argument that has some resonance in Prague. This Blog’s readers, however, will recall that the FCO claims that the constitution gives Britain greater voting power, reflecting better the size of the UK.

Meanwhile, in France, polls show the "yes" camp's previously strong lead declining into single digits, prompting Chirac to order an all-out campaign to persuade France that the constitution enshrines the architecture of Social Europe and bolsters the continent against an American-led globalised world.

The Spanish, despite the vote on Sunday and the hyperactivity of their political classes, seem to be opting for a prolonged siesta – giving rise to fears that the turnout will be embarrassingly low, even if a "yes" outcome is a foregone conclusion.

However, Sebastian Kurpas, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, has offered his view on how to spin the result. "The lesson of Spain," he says, "is that leaders need to communicate that this is a compromise between 25 countries. You can't take out one article and say 'we are against the entire Constitution because of it.'"

He is unconcerned about a low turnout: "What matters," he says, "is that the Spanish ratify it. That is what people will remember." From all accounts, though, the referendum will be a highly forgettable experience.

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