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Public turn against EU plan By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Brussels (Filed: 04/10/2003)
Like Banquo's Ghost, public opinion will be the unwanted guest as European Union leaders gather today at the 1930s Palazzo dei Congressi in Rome for an inter-governmental conference to kick off the final phase of the new European constitution.
Europe's peoples played no role for a year and a half as MEPs and national MPs sketched the "future of Europe" under the lordly guidance of Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
But the crushing No in Sweden's referendum on the euro last month has prompted fears that the draft text may never secure popular approval in all 25 states.
President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic has already chilled the mood by refusing to attend today's ceremonial launch, and slamming the draft text as a blueprint for a European super-state.
"This is crossing the Rubicon after which there will be no more sovereign states in Europe with fully fledged governments and parliaments which represent legitimate interests of their citizens," he said. "Basic matters will be decided by a remote federal government in Brussels, and Czech citizens will be only a tiny particle whose voice and influence will be almost zero."
From now until Christmas, ministers and diplomats meeting behind closed doors at the granite Justus Lipsius building in Brussels will haggle over the draft, trading minor concessions in the hallowed tradition of EU treaty talks.
Then the real trouble starts. Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Holland, and Portugal are all committed to a referendum. Spain and Italy are expected to follow suit. President Jacques Chirac has said there ought to be a vote in France, hoping that it will trigger bitter divisions among his foes.
The pressure is building up on the others. Finland rejected the idea at first, but is now opening the door again. The Swedish government is in a quandry, fearing a severe backlash if it attempts to "smuggle" its Eurosceptic public into a constitutional union without a vote. One of the sub-themes of the euro campaign was a deep disquiet about the EU's military agenda, a neuralgic point after Sweden's 200-year history of unbroken neutrality.
It only takes one country to block the constitution. A No vote in two or three would force Brussels to abandon the plan altogether. If the French rebelled it would be an earthquake, though it nearly happened over the Maastricht Treaty, which passed by 50.5 per cent to 49.5 in 1992.
A string of bitter clashes between Paris and Brussels over breaches of the euro zone Stability Pact and illegal bail-outs for struggling French firms has revived Gallic Euroscepticism. Pierre Mauroy, the former prime minister, said: "If Chirac holds a referendum, there is a big chance that the French would vote no. And that holds for the Socialist grass roots as well."
For the French Left, the EU is increasingly seen as the tool of "savage" Anglo-Saxon capitalism.
The Dutch, once model Europeans, can no longer be counted on either in the new political landscape left by the firebrand populist Pim Fortuyn. The biggest net contributor to the EU budget, the country is now in deep recession yet is having to slash welfare spending to stick within the Stability Pact, even as France cuts taxes and blithely tears up the rules of the euro zone.
Frits Bolkestein, Holland's European commissioner, says there is open nostalgia for the "many hundreds of years of stability" of the guilder. It is coupled with anger that "some countries in the euro zone seem more equal than others".
In Denmark, which rejected the euro three years ago, support for the Giscard text is only 18 per cent. Jens-Peter Bonde, an MEP and doyen of Denmark's Eurosceptic movement, said the document was too deeply flawed to win acceptance in any Scandinanvian state. "It is worse than a federal state," he said. "It is a unitary state without any checks and balances. The Danish people will never accept it."
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