Europe's Constitution Skeptics

Europeans have the jitters over their next step toward greater unity - ratifying a constitution that their heads of state signed on to last summer.

Serious skepticism over the document's implications is brewing in as many as nine of the 25 European Union countries. The most significant is France, which holds a referendum to accept or reject the constitution on May 29. A stunning 11 opinion polls in the past month all indicate a majority will say "non." The Dutch, who will vote June 1, also look as if they'll spurn it; same for the biggest Euro-skeptics of them all, the British.

All EU countries must ratify the constitution for it to take effect, and what a blow to the growing unity drive a French snub would be. After all, the French practically invented the European economic club, and along with the Germans, have been the main drivers behind it for more than 50 years.

Europeans, however, needn't be so skeptical. After all, they've taken much bigger steps, such as adopting the single currency (though not every member country has the euro) and opening internal borders. These decisions touch everyday lives much more than the new constitution will.

The very term "constitution" is misleading. The document is not a basic law for Europe, as its name implies, nor will it replace any individual country's constitution.

Its function is to consolidate the existing treaties that underlie the EU, to streamline its governance, simplify the union's voting system, and give the EU a greater role in immigration and judicial issues (both needed in the post-9/11 world). It also aims to present a single voice for Europe to the world by creating the post of EU foreign minister.

But this basket of changes doesn't make a very easy sell, which perhaps explains why many Europeans seem to be reading into it their greatest fears. In France, for instance, it's viewed by many as the end of French sovereignty, and the referendum is a way to punish the government for rising unemployment and painful economic and social reforms.

The sell message will necessarily have to be tailored according to each country's concerns: In France, that a stronger Europe can act as a counterweight to US influence; in Britain, that a smoother-running EU does not mean the loss of national decisionmaking on vital issues like taxation; in Holland, that a "yes" will help fortify Europe's borders against terrorists.

But one overarching appeal should be made: The EU and its precursors have successfully overcome the aggressive nationalism that caused so much suffering in the past century. Overall, the EU has proven such a success that other countries are clamoring to join. The constitution - no, let's say the "simplifying treaty" - is the next logical step in this historic experiment.

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