Belgian PM to put EU treaty to referendum


EU CONSTITUTION: The prime minister of Belgium, Mr Guy Verhofstadt, announced yesterday that he wants to put any new constitution for the European Union up for approval by Belgian citizens.

Although the Belgian constitution does not permit a binding referendum, Mr Verhofstadt said he would follow the advice of the people.

"Just like in many other countries, our population has the right, at a certain time once the constitution is approved, to present its views," Mr Verhofstadt said.

He said he wanted to hold an advisory referendum within 50 days of this month's European summit. The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, will chair a European Council of EU heads of state and government on June 17th and 18th aimed at concluding negotiations on an EU constitutional treaty.

Compared to the UK or Denmark, Belgium has a strong tradition of being supportive of the EU, so the Belgian vote, if it goes ahead, will not be seen as the greatest threat to the EU's constitution.

Mr Verhofstadt said he wanted the vote to happen on the same day as a similar advisory referendum in the Netherlands.

But the prime minister's declared intent might yet encounter problems.

Traditionally, the Belgians are reluctant to vote on anything during the summer: last year the date of the general elections was brought forward from June to May. In addition, Mr Verhofstadt does not yet have support for the idea from his socialist partners in the government coalition.

His liberal party is trailing in the polls behind both the socialists and, in Flanders, the centre-right Christian Democrats, led for the European Parliament campaign by former prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene.

In a radio debate with Mr Verhofstadt yesterday, Mr Dehaene strongly criticised the idea of a referendum.

"We know that nine out of 10 people will not have read the constitution and will vote on the basis of what politicians and journalists say," Mr Dehaene said. "More than that, if the answer is no, then the vote will probably have to be done again, because it absolutely has to be yes."

In the same debate, Mr Verhofstadt said the European Union should introduce stricter tests before it introduced legislation. The EU should consider the costs, the effect on jobs and on bureaucracy, he said.

The countries that have so far announced their intention to hold a referendum are Ireland, the UK, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Countries that are debating the possibility are Spain, Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic and Belgium.