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Voter Apathy On EU Constitution?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 22 February 2005
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Over the weekend, the Spanish people voted in a referendum on the proposed EU Constitution. The response was positive, with a 'yes' vote of around 76 percent.

Yet only 41 percent of those eligible to vote did so. The size of the voter turn-out somewhat weakens the moral strength of the outcome.

Nobody will ever be able to say, in 50 years time, that Spain voted overwhelmingly for the EU Constitution.

That fact may not seem important now, when Spain is doing well under the EU covering, but what if at some time in the future things are going less well? What if, because of some problem, membership of the EU is seen as more of a liability than strength? It would be better to be able to say that, historically, Spain has always firmly believed in the constitution.

Why the small turn-out in Spain and could this indicate apathy on the part of European voters when it comes to the new constitution?

Spanish voters have done well from their association with the EU. After years of repression under Franco's regime, Spain moved quickly forward after the dictator died in 1975. It became a fully-fledged democracy in 1980 and an EU member six years later.

Since then it has received an average of more than €4.3 billion ever year from the EU coffers; money which among other things has allowed it to build a quality road system and to renew its rail network.

It is perhaps hardly surprising then that Spain should support a greater formalization of a united Europe. Yet despite the huge advertising push launched by the government, with the support of the opposition, the population for the most part remained uninspired about the vote.

Most of Europe still has to vote on the acceptance of the draft constitution and all 25 member states must approve it before it can be accepted. Aside from Spain, three nations have already voted: Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia. Each gave their approval.

Things may not be so easy for some of the others, where resistance to greater European integration has traditionally been stronger. Britain, for example, may vote either way, though many pundits would foresee defeat if the referendum were held tomorrow.

Denmark and Sweden have also showed signs of resistance to EU hegemony. Their referendum results will also be interesting.

However, in states that have traditionally supported EU unity and even driven its progress, notably France and Germany, it may be voter apathy which eventually weakens the moral authority of any 'yes' vote.

In some places, as in Spain, voters will vote one way or the other without even knowing what the constitution says. This is probably not surprising when you think that it contains more than 300 pages. In any language – and some more than others – that's a lot of reading!

Many people will judge the constitution not on its content but on what they're told it contains – by media reports and newspaper editorials which can, at best, summarize only a few of its points.

Others will form a view based on hyped-up advertisements. In Spain, the advertising was visible on everything from billboards to scratch lottery cards. So, voting 'yes' might simply be seen as the 'cool' or progressive thing to do.

Still other voters might base their opinion on nothing more than the financial rewards they see have come from integration – especially in regions like southern Spain, the former eastern bloc and the Republic of Ireland, which has done very well from EU subsidies and investment.

In a world where people are constantly bombarded with information, many will refuse to make a decision or will do so on the barest of grounds. Some experts tell us that we encounter 1600 commercial messages, in one form or another, everyday. Even it is only half that number, this would represent 50 messages every waking hour, or almost one every minute. That's a lot of information to sift through.

Forced to think on the run, people tend to reject 90 percent of what they hear and read as being irrelevant to them. They decide within a few seconds whether or not something is for them.

That might be acceptable when it comes to buying a new deodorant, or choosing which movie to see, but it can hardly be good enough when decisions involve the future of nations.

Politicos have, of course, already voted on the constitution. If they had not ratified it, the document would not now be open to public vote.

So, they have a vested interested in seeing it pass in their respecting states. Nobody wants to be the first, or perhaps the only national leader to get a 'no' vote.

In my view, the leaders of EU states are for the most part trying too hard to push the constitution through without proper debate or reflection.

Yes, we do live in a fast-paced world. Yes, there are issues of economic competitiveness and political solidarity to consider – it would not be good for Europe to be marginalized or left behind in the great debates of our time, simply because it could not agree on a united approach to issues.

But future generations of Danes, Brits, Germans, French and so on may not thank us for being glib and supporting short-term expediency and convenience over long term wisdom and steady strategic thinking.

We should insist that our leaders, national and regional, give us information on the constitution in an unbiased, unglossy way and then facilitate opportunities for us to discuss the impact of the constitution and reflect on what it might mean in 20 or 50 years time.

After all, Europe's past is littered with bold decisions which turned out to be wrong decisions.

© Mal Fletcher 2005

What’s your view?

Should Europeans accept the adoption of the EU Constitution?

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Keywords: EU constitution | Spanish vote | EU | Spain | constitution of the EU | constitution | referendum | comment | social comment

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