- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

PARIS — This is a year of crucial decisions, when the European Union can close ranks and look forward to further expansion or see its precarious unity shattered.

France, because of its size and role in the EU, holds the key to the future with a referendum on the proposed European Constitution — a lengthy document, read by few, comprising 448 articles, that one French pundit described as “badly put together.”

A number of countries — starting with Spain on Feb. 20 — will hold referendums on the constitution, while others are expected to let their legislatures vote for them. The parliament of Slovenia approved the constitution by a large majority last Tuesday. The most vocal critics of the proposed charter are in France, the Netherlands, and Britain.

The French referendum on the charter will most likely be held in June. While the government and a number of politicians urge acceptance, opinion polls indicate a strong rejectionist current, largely because of domestic problems and opposition to opening the EU gate to Turkey.

France’s rejection of the constitution would send a strong signal to Britain and the Netherlands, which vote later.

In France, the issue has degenerated into a simmering political debate in which some regard the referendum as a vote of approval or disapproval on the record of conservative President Jacques Chirac.

To save the constitution, Mr. Chirac is trying to separate its approval from the decision on Turkey’s European future — by promising another referendum in 2015 dealing only with whether or not to invite Turkey into the European Union.

His approach appears to have further muddled the issues, triggering a barrage of often-confusing — and, frequently, later-denied — statements across the entire political spectrum.

The increasingly acerbic debate is taking place against a background of disagreements between Mr. Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, his economy minister and leader of the dominant Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Mr. Sarkozy does not hide his presidential ambitions, and his party is facing a growing split.

Some analysts describe the situation as able to spark a major political crisis in France, and consequently in the European Union itself.

“The government does not shine, either by its performance or its results. The new generation feels it can manage without it,” said Stephane Denis, a political commentator.

“The referendum provides an opportunity to prove that Europe is ill-assorted, does not want the Turks, and that Chirac is boring,” Mr. Denis added.

The French president’s call for a “oui” vote is in keeping with the idea that the constitution provides for the European Union’s further expansion. Last year, the European Union agreed to start accession talks with Turkey, a mostly-Muslim nation astride Europe and Asia that finally got the right to “ring the bell” of what until then had been a club for Christians (or agnostics).

Mr. Chirac’s proposal to hold a separate referendum on Turkey’s accession 10 years down the road has become a delicate issue. A series of weeklong strikes last month was interpreted by many as a sign of growing opposition to the government’s economic policies, which could have an impact on its recommendation to approve the constitution.

Last year, French voters gave a major warning signal to the conservative government in regional and European Parliament elections.

At this time, there are no clear-cut indications of how the French electorate, which has proved fickle in the past, will treat the constitutional issue linked to Europe’s unity and aspirations.

Critics say the proposed constitution is the result of a compromise, and thus satisfies only a few. There is considerable fear of the European Union’s greater expansion, which many consider likely to dilute its efficiency and its influence in the world.

“Euro-skeptics” consider the forthcoming negotiations with Turkey as the beginning of the European Union’s decline, if not of its eventual disintegration.

Mr. Chirac’s support for Turkey’s candidacy clashes with the views of some leading French politicians — including former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who drafted much of the European Constitution — and Mr. Sarkozy, who has a strong likelihood of winning the next presidential election.

French commentators point to the lesson of last year’s elections to the 732-member European Parliament, when many governing parties were bruised and criticism of the European Union was rife.

According to Dominique Moisy of the French Institute for International Relations, last year’s vote proved that “the governments have failed to sell Europe to the people.”

“There is a crisis of confidence in the European Union,” said Timothy Gerden Ash of the European Studies Center at Oxford University. “There is a danger that the EU might become like the Holy Roman Empire — a structure of enormous complexity, and even greater irrelevance.”

Nonetheless, last Oct. 29 the leaders of the 25 EU member nations signed the European Constitution in the Campodoglio, the city hall of Rome alongside the historic Roman Forum. There was little applause because the final verdict was left to the voters.

For opponents of the EU Constitution, the days of reckoning are coming. There is little doubt that a rejection by such economically strong countries as France and Britain could capsize the European Union, or set its development back a number of years.

Supporters of the constitution undoubtedly prefer parliamentary approval, mainly because it is less cumbersome, and limited to politicians generally in favor of European integration. Thus the parliaments of Lithuania and Hungary, both members since last May, already have said yes.

Equally positive was a vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. About half of the remaining 23 EU countries are expected to hold referendums. Spain, voting Feb. 29, is expected to deliver an enthusiastic “Si!”

Britain, from the beginning reluctant, if not hostile, to any form of binding European charter, will not vote until 2006, but if another big country rejects the EU Constitution before then, the vote might not take place at all. At this point, 65 percent of British voters are believed set to reject the project.

Equally uneasy with the constitution is the Netherlands, a founding member of the European Union when it was still a six-nation European Common Market. In recent years, the Dutch have become frustrated with the cumbersome EU administration and their heavy contributions to the EU coffers.

In addition to linking the constitution to a variety of domestic problems, many French voters resent this country’s diluted role in the expanded union. The French language has ceded place to English, and France felt slighted when some of the major EU posts went to lesser states, some of them newcomers.

They fear that France will be further dwarfed the day Turkey is admitted, although that prospect does appears to be at least 10 years away.

According to Pierre Moscovici, vice president of the European Parliament, French politicians are ambitious, and “their opposition to Turkey is more noisy than their support for the constitution.”

Some French politicians would prefer to solidify the existing EU fabric before embarking on further expansion.

A recent editorial in the conservative French daily Le Figaro, advocating acceptance of the constitution, said “Europe is at a turning point, it needs the political boost which the constitution would provide.”

Another problem affecting the feelings among French voters is the exorbitant salaries paid to EU employees and members of the European Parliament — many of the latter increasing their paychecks through perks exceeding the equivalent of $100,000 per year.

The European Union plans to “harmonize” the salaries of Euro-parliamentarians, particularly because those from the former communist countries are paid considerably less.

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