One-third of EU citizens unware the European Constitution exists; Czechs among the least in favour of adopting it

17-02-2005

One out every four Members of the European Parliament — and two-thirds of the Czech MEPs — last month voted against adopting the European Constitution, that rather lengthy and complex document designed to govern relations between the now 25 EU Member States. Most Czech MEPs said they rejected the European Constitution because of the proposed formulas by which countries are "weighted" — meaning how much voting power they will have in future. If you have no idea what we're talking about, you're in good company —a newly released survey by the Eurobarometer agency showed that every third EU citizen is unaware that the European Constitution even exists.

Half of those surveyed by Eurobarometer said they knew only "a little" about it: most people seem to be either pro-EU to begin with — and so are intuitively in favour of the European Constitution; or, believing that just about anything the EU does is a threat to national sovereignty, against it.

Ahead of the first popular test of the European Constitution — in a referendum in Spain, this coming Sunday — I spoke with a Brussels-based expert on the document, Giovanni Grevi of the European Policy Centre, to make sense of it all. I began by asking him whether adopting the Constitution would lead to a loss of sovereignty — as the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, who is calling for an analysis of EU and Czech constitutional law, has often said.

"Well, it all depends what we mean by 'loss of sovereignty'; the European Union provides a rather fair system of decision-making to adopt decisions in the common interest. Of course there will be, on specific decisions, winners and losers. But one should keep in mind that European decision-making, normally, is largely consensual. It is very, very rare that one or more countries are put in a minority and are stuck there. There are ways to negotiate and find compromises; that is the way the Union works."

RP: From the Eurobarometer data, is there any pattern that you see, in terms of the economic prosperity of a country, and the level of knowledge about the Constitution, or the degree to which it is popular - the very concept of having a European Constitution?

"I don't see a particular pattern; I think, actually, that each national debate is rather unique. It's very much up to the political classes, and the actors in civil society, in every country, to address the concerns of different national public opinions."

RP: According to the Eurobarometer survey, the three countries that appear to be the most problematic for adopting the European Constitution are the Czech Republic, Poland, and the United Kingdom — which, of course, is rather famous for being euro-sceptic in general. If as you say, there is no discernable pattern, is it a coincidence that both the Czech Republic and Poland, both new EU member states, both formerly communist, share this scepticism? Is there anything that you can work out from the data?

"Poland and the Czech Republic are countries where the opposition to the Constitution is rather strong. At the same time, if you look at other new member states, like the Baltic States, or Slovenia, support is widespread. I think that it is very much out of national political cultures, national traditions, and perhaps — in the case of Poland and the Czech Republic — a sort of left-over from the bitter experience of 50 years of the communist regime, and an attachment to their own government."

RP: Specific to Czech politics, the president here, Vaclav Klaus, has called for a high-level analysis of the compatibility, in his words, of the European and Czech Constitutions. Is there any legitimacy in calling for this, or do you see it as a stalling tactic?

"Well, I think it's a little bit of a political tactic to raise doubts and perhaps scare some of the observers as to the impact and consequences of adopting the European Constitution. After all, other countries in the past had to introduce constitutional reform following the adoption of the treaties of Amsterdam, Nice; the European Constitution is not to take supremacy over national constitutions, whereas European legislation, of course, has a supremacy over national legislation."

"But again, one should bear in mind that European legislation is adopted by national governments; if an even sizable minority of national governments are opposed to European legislation, then that legislation will not come into force and will not take precedence over national law."

"From a legal perspective, there is scope for examining whether the Czech and European constitutions are compatible — and perhaps there is also the need for tiny amendments. But that is more of a political statement; it is not necessarily a matter of threat to the basic rules of the countries."

17-02-2005