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French, Dutch to Vote on European Constitution

European Parliament building in Strasbourg, with its facade covered with slogans promoting the European Constitution in several languages
French voters and Dutch citizens cast ballots in referendums in the next few days on whether to accept a new constitution for the European Union. VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the key points of the constitution and discusses the pros and cons of accepting the document.

The European constitution brings together, in one document, all the various treaties forming the European Union, or EU. Several hundred pages long, it is an attempt to make the European Union a simpler, more transparent and more efficient organization.

Experts say it is not a revolutionary text, but it contains some key provisions. Among them is a streamlined voting system to take into account the enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 members. The constitution also provides for the appointment, for 2.5 years, of a president of the European Council, in essence, a president of Europe. And the charter calls for the creation of a foreign ministry with a full diplomatic corps.

The constitution was drafted by a convention under the leadership of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. The process took nearly three years and the current text was adopted by European Union governments in August 2004.

Daniel Keohane is senior analyst with the London-based Center for European Reform. He says the EU countries are now in the process of ratifying the document.

"Ten governments, altogether, out of 25, say they will have referendums, the other 15 are ratifying in their parliaments and obviously those using parliamentary ratification assume that there won't be any problem because the government has a majority," Mr. Keohane said. "Only one country has had a referendum so far and that's Spain, which passed by 77 percent."

Countries having approved the constitution by parliamentary vote include Italy, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Austria and Slovakia.

But all eyes are on France and the Netherlands, which will hold referendums in a few days. The French will vote May 29 and the Dutch, June 1. Public opinion surveys indicate a majority in both countries is opposed to the constitution. Experts say that would sound the death knell of the charter, since all 25 EU members must approve the text for it to take effect. The deadline is November 2006.

Francois Heisbourg is special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. He says it is easy to list the arguments of those favoring passage of the constitution. They say the text is far better than the current treaty governing the EU (the Treaty of Nice). They also say it will make the union more efficient and make it a more potent player on the world stage.

"What is more complicated is the motivation of the 'no' side, where you have, both in France and the Netherlands, strong anti-government feelings, that's one strand," Mr. Heisbourg said. "You have a second strand on the left, notably in France, of anti-market sentiment, what we call anti-liberalism in the economic sense, not the political sense. And of course, you also have those who are not satisfied with the kind of Europe that the constitution is in favor of, that is an enlarged European Union and one which opens the prospect of Turkish membership."

Mr. Keohane says potential Turkish membership in the EU is a key issue fueling the "no" campaign in the Netherlands.

"There has been a leadership vacuum, really, in Holland over the last three years since the murder of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn [May 6, 2002, far-right, anti-immigration politician] and immigration is a big issue in Holland," he said. "There is a lot of ethnic tensions at the moment in Holland and some Dutch voters, for example, are against Turkey's membership in the European Union and they think that if they vote against the treaty, that this will halt Turkish membership in the European Union."

Experts say in the final analysis, the upcoming vote could be more of a referendum on the French and Dutch governments than on the merits of the European constitution.

Charles Kupchan is the Director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"There is a somewhat unfortunate situation in which if the 'no' votes carry, they will do so not because of principled opposition to the constitutional treaty or to Europe, but because an ill political wind is blowing across Europe at present," Mr. Kupchan said. "And we've seen that in recent elections, with Tony Blair being re-elected but his coalition being dramatically reduced. There were elections in Germany and the Social Democrats lost what was one of their safest districts, North Rhine Westphalia."

The strong anti-government sentiment, says Daniel Keohane from the Center for European Reform in London, is most prevalent in France.

"Because, of course, France has suffered very high unemployment, 10 percent unemployment for 20 years, since 1983, even more than 20 years," he said. "So there is a distrust of the political class at the moment in France and this is a chance for them to give President [Jacques] Chirac a bloody nose, as it were."

Analysts say if voters in France and the Netherlands reject the European constitution, it will not mean the end of the EU. It will continue to function under existing legislation. But experts say it will cause a political crisis that will force European leaders to reassess some of the fundamental principles governing the European Union.