- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

PARIS — EU administrators, concerned that chances for unanimous approval of a new draft constitution may be slipping away, have begun pushing for simultaneous referendums across Europe in the hope of focusing the debate.

The new constitution, designed to streamline decision making in the 25-nation body, was to have been approved before 10 new members joined the European Union May 1 making existing procedures unwieldy.

But with two key nations withholding consent, the expansion has gone ahead under the old rules, meaning all 25 must ratify the document before it can come into force.

However, it is not the new members that worry EU executives, but the old member states, many of which are expected to put the document to popular vote.

“The new members had just held referenda on whether they wanted to join the EU, so they knew what they were getting themselves into,” said Heather Grabbe, deputy director of the Center for European Reform.

“The most likely ‘no’ votes will be coming from the old members, particularly Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands.”

Fears that the historic text would be rejected were rekindled last month when British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that he would hold a referendum on the constitution.

That decision inspired other countries to follow suit. Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal are planning to hold plebiscites; even in pro-Europe France, a recent poll found that 74 percent of respondents want a referendum.

An increasing reluctance for deeper integration with Europe — as is being seen in Denmark and the Netherlands — is not the only threat to the constitution. Domestic factors could also play a role. When one is dissatisfied with one’s government, it is tempting to vote ‘no’ regardless of the issue at stake.

The European Commission, the EU executive arm, hopes to counter that threat by encouraging all the member countries to decide on the constitution, whether by referendum or parliamentary vote, on the same day.

“We have to prevent this debate from happening in a purely national context,” said Stefaan De Rynck, the European Commission’s spokesman for Institutional Reform.

“If we hold the referenda on the same day, it will increase the chances of the debate being focused on the merits of the constitution rather than on the merits of other issues that have little to do with the constitution.

“Rejecting the constitution is a very serious act,” he added. “It is not a text that was written in a week. It was a long process to get to this point.”

No one can say what will happen if one or more countries vote down the constitution, an act European Commission President Romano Prodi warned would bring “heavy” political consequences.

“It’s pretty uncharted territory,” said Ms. Grabbe. “There is no legal or political precedent for this.”

Ultimately, much would depend on who and how many said no. Ms. Grabbe said if a small country rejects the constitution, the others might not allow it to hold everyone else up; however, if a large country says no, it would be more difficult.

“If Britain were to reject the constitution, it would not be rejecting just a part of it, but the whole thing,” she said. “So, either you get a country to adjust to the treaty, or you renegotiate the treaty. But where is the tipping point?”

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