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Spain Prepares to Vote on New EU Constitution

Lisa Bryant

Spain is holding the European Union's first referendum on the new EU constitution. Leaders from the 25-member block signed the charter last October, but it needs to be approved by parliamentary vote or referendum in each country to go into effect. While the referendum is expected to pass, Spaniards - like many other Europeans - appear far from enthusiastic about their new constitution.

Few citizens should feel more connected to the European Union than the residents of this medieval town of cobblestone streets and Gothic churches. For centuries, millions of Christian pilgrims have flocked to Santiago de Compostela, located in Spain's rugged, northwestern province of Galicia, where the bones of St. James the Apostle are said to lie.

But ask 42-year-old Manola Reguero, out walking her dog one chilly night, if she plans to vote Sunday - when Spain holds a referendum on the new European constitution - and you may be surprised by her answer.

Mrs. Reguero says she won't be voting on the charter because she really doesn't know what its about. Its a complicated document, she says, and Spaniards like herself haven't had the time to learn about it.

Polls and news reports suggest Mrs. Regueros is hardly the only Spaniard who feels this way. One recent survey found the vast majority of Spanish citizens had no idea about the constitution, despite a voter education campaign launched by Spain's Socialist government in January.

In principle, the charter needs to be approved by all EU member states to go into effect. Ten of the 25 members, representing half of the block's population, are expected to hold referenda. The rest are expected to put the document to a parliamentary vote.

In either case, a single no vote - especially by powerful European  countries like France and Germany - could scuttle the charter.

The leftist government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been handing out copies of the constitution to Spaniards, and holding public debates on the charter. And last week, Mr. Zapatero teamed up with French President Jacques Chirac to plug for the new charter during a meeting in Barcelona.

The government's task should be easy. Some $100 billion in EU assistance to Spain over nearly two decades has help transform the country into a regional economic star. And in fact, polls suggest Spaniards are expected to approve the constitution on Sunday.

But that doesn't make them enthusiastic about the new treaty or about the European Union as a whole. Politicians fear a high abstention rate. And several smaller political parties are urging voters to reject the constitution.

That includes Galicia's regional political party, the Bloque Nacionalista Galego, known as the Benega. Francisco Jorquera Caselas, the party's executive coordinator, explains why.

Mr. Jorquera says the Benega agrees with the idea of a more democratic and social Europe. But he says the European constitution doesn't go in this direction. Rather, he says, it serves to benefit big company interests, at the expense of ordinary European citizens.

Mr. Jorquera also argues Galicia has paid a steep price for Spain's membership in the European Union. Dairy farmers in this rural region must reduce their milk production, because of EU quotas. And while the EU called for the phasing out of dangerous single-hulled tankers after a devastating oil spill off Galicias shores two years ago, he says the regions shipbuilding industry has not benefited from a boom in constructing safer double-hulled tankers.

Experts note Mr. Jorqueras criticism is echoed in other parts of Europe. So is Spanish apathy about the EU constitution. Sebastian Kurpas is a research fellow at the Center for European Policy studies in Brussels.

"Spain is not the only country that will have this problem in the course of the upcoming referendum," he said. "Other countries will see the same. People just don't know enough about this treaty and about this constitutional text. It is clearly complex and as such it really needs to be broken down for the general population."

In neighboring France, where a referendum on the constitution is expected in June, a large block of the opposition Socialist party opposed the charter during an internal vote last year. And earlier this month, Frances largest trade union, the General Labor Confederation (CGT), bucked its leader by voting to oppose the treaty.

Polls also show waning French support for the constitution, although a majority still indicate they will vote for it.

Euro-skeptic Britain may present an even tougher challenge. So may Denmark, expected to hold a referendum later this year.

Moreover, years of low voter turnout during European Parliamentary elections across the European Union once again underscore public disinterest in what is happening in Brussels.

Still, not everybody is grumbling. The constitution has already sailed through parliaments in Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia.

And in Santiago de Compostela, 65-year-old Ramon Suarez is one Spaniard who does not mind describing himself as an EU fan.

Mr. Suarez says he's read bits and pieces of the new constitution. It sounds like a good thing, he says. And he says hell be voting for it on Sunday.

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