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Analysis: Referendums On EU Constitution Could Prove Tricky

By Ulrich Buechsenschuetz

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a referendum on the planned constitutional charter of the European Union on 20 April, he not only "wrong-footed" the British opposition Conservative Party, as London's "Independent" put it the following day. He also -- probably unwillingly -- highlighted the fact that a number of current EU members, as well as some of the new member states, which are to join the union on 1 May, will also hold referendums. In addition, Blair's move led some media to ask what would happen if any of the EU members rejects the EU constitution in a referendum.

The constitutional charter is to provide a new framework for decision-making processes, the structure of the EU's institutions, and the basic rights for the enlarged EU. It is aimed at replacinig the old, complex, and ponderous system of treaties. Its main achievement, some observers contend, is that democracy within the EU institutions will be strengthened by granting greater powers to the European Parliament and the parliaments of member states. Moreover, the constitution could also help foster a European identity, as authors such as Christine Landfried of Hamburg University believe.

Of the current EU members, Britain, Denmark, Ireland, and Luxembourg have already decided to hold referendums.

There are three countries in which a decision on a referendum has not yet been made, but which appear set to give the people a say on the constitutional charter: the Netherlands, where a referendum would be purely consultative and not binding for the government, and, among the new EU members, Poland and Latvia.

Although Estonia has not adopted any official position thus far, it may possibly join the countries holding referendums -- but only if a parliamentary majority decides to do so.

The group of countries that have not yet decided whether to put the EU's new basic law to popular vote or not include Austria, France, Portugal, and Spain among the old members, and the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia among the new.

Many Western European newspaper commentators agree that Blair's decision in favor of the referendum has drastically increased the pressure on French President Jacques Chirac to do the same. Other leaders, like Austria's Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, have said they prefer "the right moment" to decide on the EU constitution.

In the Czech Republic, a public debate on a possible referendum on the EU constitution ended without result. Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia are also still undecided on how to ratify the union's future constitution. In 10 countries -- Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Finland, and Sweden of the current members, and Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Malta of the new -- it will be up to the parliament to ratify the constitution. Despite traditional reservations about plebiscites, some smaller German parties have already signaled that they would prefer the people to ratify the constitution rather than the parliament. However, the alliance of such divergent parties as the governing Green Party and Bavaria's ruling Christian Social Union is unlikely to succeed in convincing the vast majority of German politicians to let the people have a say.

Since the populations of many current and future EU members remain skeptical of the EU and its benefits, it might well be that, if given the chance to do so, they would refuse to ratify the EU constitution. And it is just as likely that the British, Danes, or Poles will go the same way.

In that case, as Joachim-Fritz Vannahme wrote in the Hamburg weekly "Die Zeit" on 22 April, the "cryptic" Article IV-7 of the EU constitution would apply: "If, two years after the signature of the treaty amending the Treaty establishing the Constitution, four fifths of the Member States have ratified it and one or more Member States have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter shall be referred to the European Council." (For the full text of the draft constitution see

Because of this article, Hans-Gert Poettering, the chairman of the conservative European People's Party group in the European Parliament, demanded on 20 April that a provision be added to the draft constitution stipulating that member states that vote against the constitution must leave the union.

Vannahme described two possible scenarios. If only one or two member states fail to ratify the constitution, it will be up to the European Council to decide whether to go ahead without those states, "But only [if these states are small countries like] Denmark or Estonia, and not France or...Britain."

However, if six or seven EU members fail to ratify the constitution, it would not be worth the paper it was written on and the EU would be facing a major crisis, Vannahme wrote. He added that this perspective is not as unlikely as it may sound today. Given that a number of countries holding referendums have populations prone to Euro-skepticism and the possibility of shifting majorities in some parliaments, it may well be that the EU will go on functioning without a constitution for some time to come, using the old system of treaties. This system may be ponderous, but it has the advantage of not completely dividing the union, Vannahme wrote.

On the other hand, a "no" vote in a referendum need not necessarily mean a definite "no." After all, Ireland voted twice on the Treaty of Nice, while the Danes approved the Maastricht Treaty on the second attempt.

Click here to see RFE/RL's "EU Expands Eastward" webpage.