Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Spaniards vote in EU constitution's first grassroots test


The EU constitution faced its first test at grassroots level yesterday as Spaniards started voting on it in a referendum, with the prospect of low turnout threatening to get the landmark document off to a sluggish start.

Both of Spain's major parties back the charter and passage was expected, but the government has acknowledged that turnout might be very low, saying it would consider 33 percent reasonable. The referendum is nonbinding, with parliament having the final say.

All 25 EU countries must ratify the constitution for it to take effect. Three have done so through their parliaments and Spain is the first of 11 holding referendums.

More than 106,000 police were on duty to provide security around the country as voting got underway at 9am.

Early-rising voters in cold Madrid included King Juan Carlos, who cast his ballot at an elementary school. As he was about to slip it into a ballot box, Queen Sofia reminded him he first had to show his national identity card, the news agency Efe reported. The king complied and then voted.

The document approved by EU leaders in October is designed to streamline EU decision-making as the bloc expands eastward, making it more efficient and giving it global clout on par with its economic might.

The rest of Europe was watching the Spanish vote closely because in several countries also due to hold referendums this year or next year, including Britain and France, passage is not considered a foregone conclusion and governments want Spain to set a good example.

As campaigning concluded on Friday night, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the vote is as important as a 1978 referendum in which Spaniards approved their own constitution, restoring a democratic charter three years after the death of General Francisco Franco.

"Now we have another historic opportunity and must not squander it," Zapatero told a rally in Madrid. "We cannot miss the opportunity to be protagonists and set the course for all Europeans with a massive `yes.'"

Zapatero has said Spanish approval of the document would be a natural progression for a country that was a relative latecomer to what is now the EU and has benefited greatly from membership.

Concerns over low turnout stem from the fact that Spaniards tend to be unenthusiastic about EU voting unless ballots coincide with a national election. In last June's European Parliament elections, turnout was 45 percent, compared with more than 70 percent in the country's general election three months earlier.

If participation yesterday was low, even if the charter is approved, it could be seen as stumbling out of the starting gate. Analysts say this would delight Euroskeptics in Britain and elsewhere, and could lead to a domino effect that might sink the constitution altogether.

Low turnout would also raise the question of what kind of mandate Zapatero would have if and when he goes before parliament with a voter-approved constitution in hand.

Last week he said he considered the referendum politically binding, even though legally it is not.

"I will respect the majority opinion of the Spanish people," Zapatero said, suggesting that if voters nix the constitution, he won't submit it for a vote in parliament.

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