Vote early and often: that seems to be the strategy of European governments that are fast-tracking national referendums on the E.U. constitution. They hope to win passage quickly before a lethal cocktail of ignorance, apathy and low turnout produces a potentially fatal no vote. In Spain last week, 77% of those who went to the polls voted yes, and though turnout was just 42%, the result was a big win for supporters of the document, which extends the E.U.'s reach into areas like immigration and asylum; recalibrates voting procedures among member states; and creates the positions of E.U. President and E.U.
Foreign Minister basic requirements, backers say, for a Europe that punches its weight on the world stage. Hoping to ride Spain's momentum, the government of the Netherlands where disenchantment with the E.U. is on the rise quickly set June 1 for its referendum. The French are also considering advancing their planned ballot from June to May. "The Spanish people have sent a message of confidence in the future of Europe," crowed French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, leader of the country's yes camp. "European democracy is on the march." Perhaps, but with every small step forward, the risk grows of a giant step back.
To come into force, the constitution must be ratified by all 25 member states, nine of which will follow Spain by letting voters decide and that could spell trouble. "The Dutch wanted to set an early referendum date before resentment grows too high," explains Dominique Reynie, a European affairs expert at Paris' Foundation of Political Science. "The French want to hold theirs first because the risk of a no vote in the Netherlands is greater and the probable yes vote in France will increase pressure on the Dutch not to drop the ball. They hope each successive passage will make it harder for voters to break ranks and reject the text."
That's a sound strategy, but it may not work. While polls indicate that the no vote forces are a minority in all countries holding plebiscites except Britain, they also show a widespread lack of understanding and interest in the constitution. According to one recent E.U.-wide study, a mere 11% of respondents said they knew what the constitution contains; 56% said they knew little; and 33% said they had never even heard of it. The sort of people who take the time to familiarize themselves with the document are also the sort who support it 75% of the respondents who knew its contents said they would vote for it. Only 22% of those who had never heard of it are in favor.
In France, the yes score in polls has fallen from 69% to 61% over the past four months. Treaty supporters across the political spectrum believe they're losing support because voters wrongly think the referendum is linked to Turkish E.U. membership (widely opposed in France) or officially surrenders social protections to the free market (as some politicians complain). Others may simply want to punish Raffarin and President Jacques Chirac for unpopular domestic policies like cutting civil-service jobs and trimming social benefits.
The Dutch are facing a similarly volatile poll. Most people say they intend to vote on June 1, but a large chunk of the electorate is undecided and the ranks of the yes camp are thinning as concerns grow over immigration and anger rises at the Netherlands' status as the biggest net contributor to the E.U. budget. "There is a lot of resentment out there," says one Dutch government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There is a big concern that the referendum could turn into a vote about everything but the constitution."
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to call a referendum next year. He appears to be in a position to win another term in elections expected in May, which could provide momentum for the yes campaign he promises to lead. It won't be easy. A January Eurobarometer poll had 30% opposed, 20% in favor, but a more recent ICM poll showed the public split 39% to 39% when presented with the exact wording of the referendum. Yet the same sample said they would ditch the constitution, 54% to 26%, if they had to vote tomorrow. Those numbers make both sides nervous. The British public is "more skeptical and hostile than they have ever been to Europe," according to Dominic Cummings, a former anti-euro campaigner who now runs the New Frontiers Foundation think tank. Yet given the right constellation of events, Cummings thinks Blair might just pull it off. If the opposition Conservatives, who bitterly oppose the constitution and expect to lead the no campaign, lose big in the May election and then become preoccupied with a nasty leadership battle, the public's frustration with them could spill over into the referendum.
And what happens if the Brits, or anyone else, say no? Most experts think a no vote by a smaller country like Denmark or a new E.U. member like the Czech Republic would probably result in a second round of polling. In 1992, the Irish initially snubbed the Nice treaty that prepared the way for E.U. enlargement before approving a reworked version 16 months later. Former E.U. Competition Commissioner Mario Monti urges that in case of a rejection, the holdouts should be offered a final take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The second time around, Monti says, the question should be: "Do you wish your country to be part of the E.U. and adopt the constitution or do you wish your country to leave the E.U.?"
But a no vote doesn't automatically mean ejection or even the death of the constitution. A more likely scenario, says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, is that a "messy core" of countries would proceed while the naysayers would get some kind of associate membership. That's the sort of compromise that has worked in the past when E.U. treaties have run aground. It may not be very tidy, but at least it would save the constitution's framers from having to go all the way back to the starting line.