BERLIN—A year ago, a proposed European Union constitution appeared dead after voters in France and the Netherlands rejected it. Recently, however, advocates of the constitution are poking it and seeing signs of life.
Parliaments in Belgium and Estonia recently have approved the document. In Finland, the parliament has decided to consider it in July.
The obvious question, of course, is why? The document must be approved by all 25 EU members to go into effect, and the French and Dutch rejections are widely thought to have killed it.
Analysts, however, believe the new interest is a reflection of just how desperately European leaders are searching for ways to get past what they see as signs of declining influence and a difficult future: growing anger over immigration, stagnant economies, aging populations and rock-bottom birth rates.
"We absolutely need the constitution to ensure the European Union is effective and capable of action," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this month.
Merkel has become the document's No. 1 promoter in a continent where most political leaders appear weak or overwhelmed by internal problems.
But whether European leaders can revive the charter is hardly certain. The document remains widely unpopular with average Europeans. The Finnish parliament decided to take up the issue despite a 50,000-signature petition in opposition. The Belgian and Estonian parliamentary approval was preceded by street protests.
Sebastian Kurpas, an expert on the EU at the research Centre for European Policy Studies, said that both the EU and the document have to overcome serious doubts from the public.
"Look, I believe creating a market of 450 million people, in an era of globalization, is a positive," he said. "But in the eyes of European citizens, the EU and the constitution are part of the problem, not part of the solution. I'd like to be positive, but I don't see a lot of reason to be, for now."
Those trying to revive the constitution hope that after new governments are elected in France and Holland next year, voters will realize they didn't object to the constitution, but to their former leaders.
But Francois Dubet, an expert on French society at Victor Segalen University in Bordeaux, said such hopes underestimate the reasons for the French rejection last year.
"The problems of France are very serious and show a deep dissatisfaction with the place of France in Europe," he said. "These problems are not easily fixed."
Dubet said that French voters remain concerned that the EU has expanded too quickly. In 2004, it went from 15 to 25 nations. France was a founding member of the EU, which was formed in the 1950s in the hope that open borders and close economic ties would prevent another continental war.
Others suggest that European leaders erred by letting the people vote on the constitution.
"The mistake was asking the people if they wanted the constitution," said Hugo Brady, an expert on EU issues for the London-based Centre for European Reform. "Individuals don't easily see the advantages of a multinational organization. It's not a popular opinion, I suppose, but I don't see why a popular vote on a European constitution was a good idea."
Indeed, there's no obligation for countries to put the document to a popular vote. Of the 15 countries that have approved it so far, only two let voters decide.
The constitution's major impact on Europe will be allowing the European Parliament to approve changes in about 40 different areas by a majority vote. Currently, changes in Europe-wide policies require the agreement of each nation affected.
That may be another reason reviving the constitution will be hard—the people might not want a more efficient European Parliament, which they see as doing little but producing more regulation and red tape.
Richard Whitman, a Bath University professor and expert on European politics, said he thinks resurrecting the constitution is unlikely.
"I'd expect, in the end, the EU will cherry-pick, take the bits of the constitution that they deem most important and add them to existing treaties, justifying that by saying they're only fine-tuning the organization to make it work," Whitman said. "But right now there is no obvious public enthusiasm, and as long as that is the case, there will be no one Europe."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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