Spaniards yawn at sales pitch for EU Constitution

This Sunday, Spain becomes the first country to vote on Europe's new Constitution.

Filmed in moody black and white, one of Spain's most famous authors reads stentoriously about liberty and civil rights. A few seconds later, those same words - an article, it turns out, from the proposed European Union (EU) Constitution - appear on screen, etched against a blue sky. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" swells in the background.

The future of the much-debated Constitution may well be determined by the effectiveness of these ads. After years of being haggled over by elites in Brussels, the charter finally gets its first popular test this Sunday in Spain. And Spain's pro-EU Socialist government is doing its utmost to pass the document with flying colors - undertaking a huge campaign to sell Spaniards on the idea that ratification is essential to the nation's well-being.

But Teresa Rodríguez is not buying it. Although she has seen the television commercial - one in a series designed to acquaint Spaniards with the Constitution - she does not plan on voting this Sunday. Rodríguez, who owns a dry-cleaning shop in Madrid, confesses: "I just don't care about it. I know I should, but I don't."

Indeed, even though surveys indicate they'll ratify the charter, many Spaniards say they haven't been stirred by the debate.

The lack of interest stems in part from the competing messages they have received. Politicians claim the referendum provides the opportunity to do everything, from approving the political status quo, to reining in "capitalist interests." Many citizens maintain it means little at all.

The charter establishes a permanent government for the EU, describes the terms of economic cooperation, and guarantees human rights within the member states. Completed last July, it now begins the torturous process of ratification. At least 10 countries have decided to hold referenda on the matter; others will send the document to their parliaments.

Spain has gone to great lengths to persuade its citizens to vote. In addition to sponsoring television ads, the government sent a copy of the Constitution to every household. In the past two weeks, many political leaders have appeared on television in a regular slot following the nightly news to express their views on the document. One company even began distributing a new soft drink, "Referendum +" as a way of getting out the youth vote.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been at the forefront of this campaign, appearing at rallies and persuading European leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to join him on the podium.

Last Sunday, he published an editorial in El Pais newspaper, in which he argued that the new Constitution will "allow Europe to deepen the quality of its democracy." In this, he has the support of the opposition Popular Party, which has mounted its own campaign to encourage a "yes" vote.

But none of this has been enough to boost expected turnout. Antonia Maria Ruíz, a professor of sociology at Madrid's Cumplutense University, has analyzed the results of a December survey that suggested 63 percent of Spaniards were likely to vote. "We know those results are inflated," explains Ruíz, "because people are reluctant to say they won't vote." In fact, Spanish absenteeism has historically been high in European elections.

More than 80 percent admit that they know little about the Constitution. And as Ruíz explains, absentee rates tend to be higher in elections - such as EU ones - in which people do not see immediate results. But politicians also seem to have confused the issue, leaving many Spaniards unsure of what, exactly, the referendum means.

Although the two main parties share the message that the Constitution will strengthen Spain, others have urged a "no" vote for a bewildering array of reasons.

At a public forum last week, Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the United Left party, said that the charter failed "to recognize social rights like the right to decent housing." The Catalan Republican Left has also rejected the treaty because it does not sufficiently acknowledge Catalan autonomy. Indeed, one of the peculiarities of the campaign in Spain is that leftist parties, which declare themselves staunchly "pro-Europe," have been the most vocal opponents of the Constitution.

Adding to the confusion are the accusations that have flown between the two major parties. The Socialists have suggested that although the Popular Party (PP) is publicly urging people to vote in favor, it is simultaneously suggesting "out of the side of its mouth," that a "no" vote would not be unwelcome.

The PP has responded by suggesting that Zapatero fears that Sunday's vote will turn into a referendum on his government. It is for that reason that Rodríguez's husband Majín won't be voting either. "This is a thing between politicians," he says.

That kind of attitude may be repeated in other countries as their own referenda draw near. Although France has not yet fixed the date for its vote, the country's largest labor union has already come out against the Constitution because it does not, in their opinion, protect workers' rights sufficiently.

"The lesson of Spain," says Sebastian Kurpas, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, "is that leaders need to communicate that this is a compromise between 25 countries. You can't take out one article and say 'we are against the entire Constitution because of it.' "

Spain is widely considered to be one of the most enthusiastically pro-Europe countries, and a low turnout may, according to Ruíz, "raise questions about the validity of the vote."

But Kurpas disagrees. "What matters," he says, "is that the Spanish ratify it. That is what people will remember."

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