- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

With a distinct lack of enthusiasm, Spanish voters tomorrow begin a series of national votes on a new European Union constitution designed to rewrite the rules of the road for the 25-nation bloc.

Three small EU countries have adopted the constitution in parliamentary votes, but Spain’s vote tomorrow will be the first of at least 10 national referendums on the treaty over the next 18 months, with approval still uncertain in such major EU powers as France and Britain.

A rejection ” especially by one of the big EU members ” could throw the entire constitutional project into confusion and endanger hopes in the EU’s Brussels headquarters that the European Union could emerge as a political and diplomatic powerhouse to match its population and economic muscle.

Spain’s vote is seen as such a bellwether that French President Jacques Chirac traveled to Madrid earlier this week to lobby for a yes vote.

The constitution is designed to improve the efficiency of the increasingly unwieldy EU bureaucracy, set the voting power of individual countries in EU councils, and create a new permanent president and foreign policy chief.

Polls show that Spanish voters will approve the constitution by a wide margin, but the government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero Rodriguez is battling voter apathy and widespread ignorance of the contents of the treaty. Mr. Zapatero also faces sniping from the conservative opposition ” which also backs the treaty ” for rushing the vote.

Inigo Mendez de Vigo, a center-right Spanish member of the EU parliament, said Mr. Zapatero wanted to advertise Spain’s pro-EU credentials in a “very pretentious way.”

“I would not say it is an error to hold a referendum. I would say it is an error to hold on February 20,” he told the Europolitix.com Web site, which follows EU issues. “I think it is an error not to inform [the public] and to avoid debate.”

A poll last month found that 51.2 percent of Spain’s 34 million voters support the treaty, compared with just 5.7 percent opposed. But 16.4 percent say they plan to abstain and more than a third of the electorate say they know nothing of the constitution and its 448 articles.

The ratification campaigns across Europe are providing a lesson in popular politics for an alliance long accused of suffering from a “democratic deficit.”

Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca, a center-right Spanish politician and a vice president of the EU Parliament, predicted that the constitution would squeak through in virtually all of the votes, given the strong elite backing and financial advantage of the pro-constitution forces.

“The one real question mark is Britain. If the British reject the treaty ” and they very well could ” I don’t think anyone knows what would happen,” he said.

Even in France, long seen as the main engine for enhancing the European Union’s clout, the Chirac government faces widespread fear that the constitution will mean a loss of French clout in the enlarged, 25-nation bloc.

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