Saturday, July 09, 2005

The most futile referendum in history?

At the very least, the most futile in the history of the EU – that is one of the options considered by The Times today, which reviews the campaign which will lead to the Luxembourg referendum on Sunday.

Like other media reports (for example, this one from the BBC) it focuses on Jean-Claude Juncker and his threat to resign if he does not get a "yes" vote. But if Luxembourg does say "no", even Juncker will admit that the constitution will be dead.

Until recently, the idea that Luxembourg could reject an EU treaty was risible, although there were signs of sentiment turning as early as 1 June, immediately after the French referendum.

Despite his failure at the European Council to broker an EU budget settlement, Juncker – 11 years prime minister of Luxembourg – remains popular in the Duchy, although his threat to resign has not gone down well, and is seen by some as blackmail.

A satirical website is urging voters to take him at his word and to treat the referendum question as: "Do you want Juncker to resign?", and vote "yes", which would have course have the opposite effect.

According to The Times, though, Lucien Kayser, one of Luxembourg's most respected intellectuals, has pleaded in an open letter to Juncker not to take voters hostage. "Let them have a really free choice on what they are being asked," he writes.

There are local – unreported – indications that Juncker is taking his plea to heart. According to reports from observers on the ground, Juncker has been touring the 999 square mile Duchy (less than twice the area of Greater London), arguing that a "yes" vote is needed to restore the honour of the country, and make up for the failed European Council.

There are some indications that this approach might be succeeding, although in the absence of any polls for a month, the most commentators are prepared to concede is that the vote will be close.

However, rallies organised by the "no" camp have been well attended – where a message similar to that offered in France is being rehearsed - while the major political parties - which all back a "yes" vote - have struggled to attract big crowds.

If Luxembourg does support the constitution, Juncker insists that the entire project would be brought back to life. "In the case that Luxembourg did say 'yes', this could be the signal that the process is still alive," he says.

He is getting some support from Karel de Gucht, the Belgian foreign minster, who is demanding that France and the Netherlands should be made to vote again. "We can create a climate in which the treaty could finally be adopted in France and the Netherlands. We have to proceed with a second vote," he says.

Luxembourg foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, agrees that a "yes" vote will send a "positive signal" to the rest of the EU. Recorded by the AFX agency, he says he wants "to ensure that Luxembourg does not become the constitution's undertaker."

The media are offering mixed messages. Laurent Moyse, editor of La Voix du Luxembourg newspaper, says that the government is trying to remind people of the gains the country has made from the EU: "The main message is that Luxembourg has gained from Europe and cannot go against it now," he says.

By contrast, the co-editor of the Luxembourg political and cultural monthly Forum, Jürgen Stoldt told Le Monde in an interview that: "the European Constitution is dead and buried. Even if the European Council on 16 and 17 June did not officially put an end to the ratification process, the treaty has no more than historical value."

Nonetheless Luxembourgers will be out in force on Sunday, attending the polling stations. On this, they have no choice. Futile or not, voting is compulsory.

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