Portuguese Begin Grass-Roots Drive For Vote on EC Treaty

IN the government ministries around Lisbon's Praca do Comercio, banners uniting the Portuguese and European Community flags proclaim the government's unquestioningly pro-European sentiments.

But on a busy shopping street just outside, a small group of activists, ranging politically from the right to the left, is busy handing out flyers and collecting signatures in a challenge to the government's assumptions that the Portuguese people have no doubts about the EC's project to build a more integrated Europe.

What the group wants is a referendum on the Community's Maastricht Treaty, which proposes an even tighter economic union, including a single EC currency, and a single foreign and security policy.

The government says "no." There is no doubt about the Portuguese people's support for Maastricht, Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva says. The country's largest political parties support the treaty, and the people elected parliament to represent them on such issues, he adds.

After Denmark's June referendum however, where the Danish people rejected Maastricht even after their parliament had voted better than 80 percent for the treaty, such arguments are on less firm ground.

Standing at a petition table under signs declaring, "I want a referendum," Paulo Varela Gomes says that unlike most people working on the petition drive, he favors Maastricht's adoption and is virtually certain that in a referendum the treaty would pass.

"For me the result is not most important," he says. "Portugal is still a young democracy and we lack citizenship. But how can you encourage that sense of involvement," he asks, "if you deny the people the right to participate in something that will have such a huge effect on them politically and economically?"

At last month's EC summit here, Community leaders responded to criticism of a growing gulf between the governing elite and the public over construction of a new Europe by calling for measures to make the Community more accessible and responsive at lower, local levels.

DESPITE the leaders' declared concerns, however, public participation in Maastricht's ratification process remains spotty. After Denmark's vote, French President Francois Mitterrand announced a Maastricht referendum in France for Sept. 20.

The only other scheduled referendum among the EC's 12 member states took place last month in Ireland, where more than two-thirds of those voting approved the treaty.

In several other countries, there is either public indifference to Maastricht, or such hostility that leaders are determined to avoid a referendum for domestic political reasons.

* In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl is up against a public that both wants a referendum and that some polls say would reject the treaty over the issue of the single EC currency. Already facing a difficult domestic economy, Mr. Kohl is determined to avoid providing the voters an outlet for expressing their displeasure.

* In Britain, Prime Minister John Major wants to avoid further exposing the rift evident in his Conservative Party by leaving ratification to Parliament.

* And in Spain, where polls show the public overwhelmingly favoring a referendum, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez last week repeated his view that "a referendum is not necessary." A recent high court decision opens the way for a referendum if 10 percent of the members of one of the country's two national legislative bodies call for one. But even that low threshold is not expected to be reached among Spain's parliamentarians.

* In Portugal, too, there are concerns within official circles that a referendum would unnecessarily expose the country to division and instability.

"In Portugal, the `no' campaign would quickly become anti-Germany, anti-big-[EC-]members, and nationalistic," says Luis Marinho, president of the Portuguese Socialist group in the European Parliament.

For the pro-referendum forces, however, such arguments expose a fear of the people and a mistrust of their ability to make an informed choice. "Their reasoning says, `Let's do this quietly and not upset the people,' but how democratic is that?" Mr. Gomes asks.

A referendum in Portugal faces one seemingly insurmountable obstacle - the Constitution, which rules out referendums on international treaties. But supporters say that problem could be easily remedied since the Constitution is already under revision for several Maastricht provisions.

Perhaps the key to their success, referendum supporters say, will be how the country's largely ceremonial but influential president, Mario Soares, comes out on the issue. The president has hinted he might favor a referendum. "Without Soares," says Gomes, "it's going to be very dificult."

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