3rd Mar 2024

Austrian chancellor suggests EU-wide referendum on constitution

The head of the outgoing Austrian EU presidency, chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, believes a pan-European referendum could be the way to revive the stranded EU constitution.

In an interview with Germany's Bild am Sonntag, Mr Schussel said "I can well imagine a referendum that takes place simultaneously in all EU states. The constitution would be accepted if the majority of the European population and the majority of states approves it."

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But he added that such a proposal would need to come from the two countries that have already rejected the charter in public polls – France and the Netherlands.

French and Dutch voters put the bloc in turmoil by rejecting the constitution on 29 May and 1 June last year, with EU leaders this week gathering in Brussels to assess the political impact one year later.

But it is expected that no groundbreaking conclusions will be drawn at the summit other than prolonging the period of reflection and perhaps a timeframe for possible treaty changes.

EU leaders are set to hold a special dinner over the issue on Thursday (15 June), with the Austrian presidency likely to present a set of conclusions concerning the constitution on the following morning.

Mr Schussel rejected the idea of "cherry picking" parts from the constitution, but said he is convinced that something new had to be added to the document.

This could be a new name or the method for adoption of the document, he said.

Franco-German timeframe

The leaders of France and Germany at an informal bilateral meeting near Berlin last week (6 June) agreed that the constitution should be tackled in the first half of next year, when Germany is running the EU for six months.

"We have agreed that the constitutional treaty will be reviewed during the German presidency, after a period of reflection," said German chancellor Angela Merkel after the meeting.

She added that "a decision should be reached" when France holds the rotating presidency of the bloc in the second half of 2008.

One of the warmest supporters of further European integration among the current EU leaders, Belgian liberal premier Guy Verhofstadt, recently warned that waiting for better times is not the right way forward.

"Deciding when to act based on an election in another member state or on who presides over the council of ministers is not the best approach, in my view", he told MEPs in a speech in the European Parliament (31 May).

Verhofstadt plan

Mr Verhofstadt pointed to the use of the special declaration to the constitution which says that "If four fifths of the Member States have ratified it and one or more Member States have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter will be referred to the European Council".

So far, 16 EU countries have or are on their way to ratify the constitution: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

To reach the four fifth threshold, 20 countries need to ratify.

"If not all of the countries start a ratification procedure, then the content of this declaration will obviously be pointless, which means that any breakthroughs in the European Council will be blocked", Mr Verhofstadt pointed out with reference to countries such as the UK and Denmark having postponed referenda on the constitution.

"I think that four fifths of the member states is feasible. If we manage to reach that quorum, then a totally new situation would arise, a situation, which certainly opens up new prospects", the Belgian prime minister said.


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