Mon, Jun 21, 2004 - Page 6 News List

EU leaders face reality after constitution gain

SHORT HONEYMOON They hammered out a deal on a constitution but there is a long way to go before it can be approved, and voters are getting `euroskeptic'

AFP , BRUSSELS

EU leaders spent the weekend trumpeting their "historic" accord on a constitution -- but will return to political reality this week as they prepare to sell the deal to increasingly euroskeptic publics.

EU haggling-as-usual will also reassert itself almost immediately, as Europe's capitals brace for a final fight over a new head for the European Commission, left unresolved by the summit which sealed the constitutional pact.

The constitutional accord, designed to shake up expanding EU's creaking institutions and prevent decision-making deadlock in the now 25-member bloc, was finally agreed late Friday after more than two years of wrangling.

It was hugely welcome news for EU leaders, in particular coming just a week after European Parliament elections which delivered a stinging blow to ruling parties across Europe.

"It's a great achievement for Europe. It's a great achievement for all Europeans," a jubilant Ahern said, shortly after popping the champagne corks at the Brussels summit.

But the main message of last week's election results -- a surge in support for euroskeptic forces, and a yawning lack of interest in the EU reflected in record low turnout -- are the very reasons EU leaders should be worried now.

Notably concerned are countries who will or may hold referendums on the constitution: Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg are sure to, while Poland, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and France could.

Analysts agree that a "no" vote in any one EU state could plunge the EU into a serious crisis. In theory the constitution must be ratified by all EU member states to come into force.

"If there is one `no,' one can imagine something to resolve this country's problem. If there are several `noes, there's no constitution," said one EU diplomat.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair in particular returned from the Brussels summit to unhappy weekend reading, as a pair of new polls showed more than twice the number of Britons are against the constitution treaty than are for it.

Blair vowed he was ready to take critics head-on. "This is going to be a fascinating political battle because it will be a battle between reality and myth," he said in a television interview.

But the scale of those myths was underlined yesterday when one leading British euroskeptic compared the EU to Hitler's Nazis, saying Blair was like Neville Chamberlain.

"He's like Chamberlain in the 1930s, it's appeasement," said Robert Kilroy-Silk of the UK Independence Party, which surged to third place in last week's polls.

Poland's interim Prime Minister Marek Belka said Saturday he backed holding a referendum despite the strong showing for anti-EU parties in last week's Euro elections.

The new EU constitution -- agreed six months behind schedule, after an attempt last December collapsed amid a fierce row over the power-charged issue of voting rights -- foresees some major innovations for the bloc.

If will notably establish a high-profile president for the EU, and a foreign minister, belatedly answering former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger's query over who should he call if if he wanted to speak to "Europe."

But analysts say that European voters' view of the EU is not helped by the sort of mudslinging and horsetrading which was evident at last week's summit.

The two-day summit notably saw the now-traditional clashes between Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, who at one point warned that the EU should "avoid being blocked by a single country."

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