EU hails Spanish 'si," but bigger battles loom

02-21-2005, 10h55

EU leaders hailed Spain's overwhelming "yes" to the bloc's constitution, but admitted the low turnout was worrying while analysts stressed the huge challenges ahead in votes in other EU states.

The European Union's executive arm reiterated that the Spanish referendum "si" should give a boost to campaigns in a string of other countries due to hold ballots over the next 18 months.

"This sends out a signal of encouragement to other member states and those 220 million people who will be asked to vote on the constitution," said EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom.

She was speaking after nearly four in five Spanish voters backed the historic text in a referendum on Sunday, the first country to vote on a document designed to prevent decision-making gridlock in the expanding EU.

The constitution was signed by EU leaders amid much fanfare in Rome last October, in a symbolic echo of the 1957 Treaty of Rome which founded the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC).

If ratified, it will notably replace the EU's musical-chairs arrangement of six-month presidencies, while also shaking up the voting system by which EU member states agree policies.

The problem is that around half of the EU's current 25 member states have opted to ratify the constitution by popular vote.

Spain's polls -- which were merely consultative -- will be followed by Portugal in April and Luxembourg and the Netherlands shortly thereafter. France is expected to vote in June, and Poland in the autumn.

Notoriously euroskeptic Britain will vote early next year, with Tony Blair said to be hoping either for a "yes" momentum from other polls or an excuse to avoid blame for wrecking the constitution if it is already rejected by others.

Although in principle one "no" vote means the constitution cannot be ratified, the political reality is more nuanced.

Much will depend on which country gives the thumbs down. If a small country did so, a poll could be re-run or other arrangements could be found; a British "no" could lead to the country's departure from the EU.

Of all the worst-case scenarios, only a French "non" would seriously call into question the EU's future.

"The French vote will be a sort of litmus test," said EU expert Kirsty Hughes, linked to the London School of Economics in London, forecasting that a French "oui" would be a far bigger psychological boost that Spain's.

Hughes said the Spanish vote was "a good starting point" for supporters of the constitution. "It's helpful and it's positive for the general mood music," she told AFP.

"But of course there are still some very difficult referenda ahead," she added.

Wallstrom, while pleased with the Spanish "yes," was less thrilled at the turnout, which while higher than the pyschologically worrying 40 percent floor, remained unimpressive at some 42 percent of those who cast their ballots.

The turnout was less than that registered in European Parliament elections last June, which marked a historic low, she conceded.

"This is a big democratic challenge. This is something we have to continue to work on together," she said. "We are all worried about the low voter turnout in general," she said.

The French daily Le Figaro also underlined disappointment at the low turnout, headlining its front page story on the Spanish polls: "A yes without passion."

"Spain ... could have shown its conviction powerfully to countries which are more skeptical," it said in an editorial. But it added: "This first yes is unambiguous but disappointing."