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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February, 2005, 15:44 GMT
Spain's mixed EU signals
By Elinor Shields
BBC News, Madrid

Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
Mr Zapatero: Europe has entered a "decisive phase"
Jose Miguel Ibanez is jubilant.

The 47-year-old Socialist toasts Spain's vote to back a charter for the European Union as a chance to bring social change and "enhance world peace".

For the party faithful in the smoke-filled Socialist headquarters and the 76% who said "Si", Europe's first poll on the treaty was sweet.

But only 42% voted, in what El Pais newspaper says was the lowest turnout in a national poll since Spainīs return to democracy, nearly 30 years ago.

Pundits say Sunday's silence suggests far more than apathy.

Complacency and confusion

Spanish analysts say the high level of abstention does not reflect euroscepticism.

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Spaniards have long been seen as broadly pro-EU, having benefited from large EU subsidies since joining in 1986 and enjoyed freedoms that were denied them under the military rule of General Franco.

"On the whole, Spaniards are very grateful Europeans," says Charles Powell, deputy director of the Elcano think-tank in Madrid.

"The polls have always shown us a curious combination of enthusiasm and ignorance - which suggests complacency."

But the low turnout was about more than complacency, Mr Powell says.

He thinks party bickering between the ruling Socialists and opposition conservatives during their separate campaigns to endorse the charter "annoyed and confused" voters.

Analysts also point to the complexities of the text and a glitzy campaign that failed to inform the electorate.

Shoppers in Madrid's Preciados Street
Madrid shoppers: Many are vague about the EU constitution
EU charter opponent Jaime Pastor says the campaign was cast as a Yes or a No to Europe, not to the charter.

"Many people voted Yes because they are afraid to be outside the EU - but the majority of people who voted Yes don't know its content," said Mr Pastor, a Madrid political scientist.

Others blame the timing of the referendum for their lack of awareness and their decision to abstain.

"I think the government was too quick in trying to be the first," says taxi driver Luis Ruiz.

"I would have liked to have voted, but no one explained it to me."

No losers?

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero says there were no losers in Sunday's vote.

Commentators say the result may be embarrassing for the Spanish leader, but it is not disastrous.

They say he will be disappointed with the turnout - which was worse than last year's European elections - but that it was not as bad as he had feared.

The opposition Popular Party have criticised the turnout as a "failure" by Mr Zapatero.

But Mr Powell says the party will have to be "careful" not to turn the result to their advantage, because they also campaigned for the charter.

What Mr Zapatero may find worrying is the results from the more nationalist regions, Mr Powell says.

The Basque region, Navarra and Catalonia cast the greatest number of No votes, which seems to reflect the concerns of some regional nationalists that the charter did not have a sufficiently regional dimension.

"It has become a bit of a national plebiscite in that sense," Mr Powell says.

End of the beginning

So where now for Spanish opponents of the EU charter?

Mr Pastor pledges to take the battle to other European countries, to help opponents elsewhere to spurn the document during the 18-month referendum season in at least nine other countries.

"This debate will end on October 2006," he says.

But for many in Spain, it seems the debate never started.




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