Referenda loom large over ‘repackaged Constitution’

The deal clinched at the EU Summit on a ‘Reform Treaty’ to replace the stalled Constitution could still face a backlash during the ratification procedure as a number of member states, including Ireland and Denmark, prepare for referenda. In Britain, incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown is under pressure from the opposition to hold a national vote.

The biggest question following the agreement among EU leaders on the outline of a new EU Reform Treaty appears to be: which countries will hold national polls? 

While France’s President Sarkozy has announced that his country – one of the two responsible for derailing the Constitution – will not be holding another referendum, other countries will do so. 

Ireland’s Constitutional provisions make it difficult not to call a national vote on a proposed treaty, and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced on 25 June 2007 that he would be calling a referendum. 

In 2001, Irish voters threw the EU into turmoil when they rejected the Nice Treaty – also centred on institutional changes with a view to adapting the Union to enlargement. However, the vote was reversed in a second poll the following year. 

Denmark is also a possibility, with the far-right Danish People’s Party, (which supports the governing coalition), calling for a referendum. Furthermore, a poll published on 23 June showed around 70% if Danish voters to be in favour. 

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has yet to announce a decision. 

There is also a chance that the Netherlands will hold another vote, although the decision is being left in the hands of Dutch judges. 

The other 24 member states are expected to opt for the simpler option of parliamentary ratification – although some observers are doubtful that Tony Blair’s successor as British prime minister, Gordon Brown, will be able to resist opposition calls to put the new text to the British people. 

In an attempt to head off demands for a vote, Tony Blair's successor Gordon Brown said that the deal struck during the EU summit protected vital British interests and was no more significant than previous treaties that had been ratified by Parliament. He told the BBC: "Like every other treaty that has been negotiated - Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht - while many other people will call for a referendum, it seems to me that we have met our negotiating position." 

But his position has already come under fire from the UK conservative opposition, which insists that the new treaty will contain most of the original draft constitution. Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "Blair and Brown have signed up to major shifts of power from Britain to the EU and major changes in the way the EU works. Given their manifesto commitment to a referendum on the EU Constitution, the Government has absolutely no democratic mandate to introduce these major changes without letting the British people have the final decision in a referendum." 

Tory leader David Cameron  also accused Tony Blair of breaking his word to British voters by denying them a say on this "substantial transfer of powers from Britain to Brussels". "This will be remembered as one of the most flagrant breaches of any of the promises you have made," he told Blair, adding: "If the new prime minister, like us, really believes in power to the people, then he must hold a referendum." 

In the Netherlands, although Dutch Christian Democrat Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende stressed that the new text meets most of his country’s demands and that "the idea of a constitution and all the elements that go along with it ... is gone", the opposition remained critical. 

Dutch Parlementarian and key 'No' campaigner in the country's 2005 referendum Harry van Bommel said that his Socialist Party, which saw a big increase in support in last November's election partly as a result of its opposition to the former EU charter, would push for another referendum to be held in early 2008. "We will be campaigning for a referendum and will recommend that people vote against it," he told Reuters. 

In France, voices are also being raised against what is being termed a ‘re-packaged Constitution’, re-awakening the divide prior to the 2005 referendum. The national secretary of France’s Communist Party Marie-George Buffet said : "This agreement does in fact not aim to respond the to social and democratic expectations expressed during the referendum on the Constituion, but rather to erase the French people's 'No'." 

French Socialist Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon agreed that the new text was simply the "adoption of the substance of the European Constitution under a new name" and that this represented a "grave violation of democratic principles". 

The Union of European Federalists (UEF) and the Young European Federalists (JEF) have launched a campaign for a European referendum on the European constitution. 

JEF Europe President Jan Seifert expressed his disappointment over the Summit procedures: "If anything becomes obvious, then it is the huge gap between the Europe of the bureaucrats and the Europe of the citizens. Europe’s governments have opted for a Europe in which citizens and parliaments are deferred to the audience without any chance to influence. The result of this? The 'reformed' EU is the biggest in ambition and the smallest in democratic oversight and delivery…JEF Europe demands that a future Constitution and future Treaty revisions have to be exclusively prepared through a Convention. It should come into force if either 2/3 of the member states have ratified the new proposal or citizens have approved the reform in a pan-European referendum with a double-majority system." 

Ratification of the Constitutional Treaty, signed by EU leaders in Autumn 2004, was stalled following the two negative votes on the text in France and the Netherlands in 2005. 

After a two-year 'period of reflection' and painstaking negotiations, heads of states and governments, meeting in Brussels on 21-23 June, agreed to a new EU Reform Treaty to replace the Constitution. 

The Treaty will nevertheless also have to be ratified by all 27 members of the EU before it can enter into force and, following the experience of 2005, many leaders are determined to do all they can to avoid referenda. 

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