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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 June, 2005, 23:48 GMT 00:48 UK
People's protest EU-style
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

The European Union now has its own popular protest movement.

It is showing itself in many different ways, but it shares one thing - distrust of the political elite.

A friend who moved from London to live in south-west France not long ago sent an e-mail describing the attitude there during the referendum on the proposed EU constitution.

'Non' banners at French referendum rally
'No' voters are shaking up Europe
The area is rural. Vineyards stretch to the horizons all around.

The town of Pezenas, where Moliere once acted, is not far away. But the days of glory are long gone.

This is what the e-mail said:

"The people we know, ex Paris and cosmopolites who have worked around the world, were all very pro but the locals were very anti. Our commune voted 84% against. Anti-globalisation is pretty strong if only because they don't have a new market for wine - don't have the flavours wanted and believe that foreign wine is just being dumped.

"We had a nasty example the other day - first we have seen. A group of protesting vignerons [wine growers] returning from an event in Nimes happened upon the two German-owned supermarkets - smashed into the steel shutters and broke most of the wine bottles inside. They had apparently burnt a Spanish bulk wine truck a week or so before.

"With 10% unemployment, falling prices and demand for wine I guess they think 'something' has to be done. They don't know what, but that's what they think the government is for - to help."

I was struck by the huge 84% figure and by the fact that the vote appears to have had little to do with the constitution itself. The referendum was a chance to let off steam.

Popular concerns

It says a lot about how sections of European public opinion, in this case in rural France, have quite different concerns from those of the political elite, for whom the constitution is not much more than a further nudge forward for the EU.

'No' graffiti on wall in Dutch referendum
The Dutch 'No' vote was widely expected
Nor has the Dutch opposition been concerned with the detail of the text. It has been about immigration, about the expansion of the EU, about a feeling that a small nation's traditions might be under threat.

Another example of popular alienation, in Britain, came my way when I took part in a phone-in on Radio Wales after the French vote.

A man rang in to ask about European law being superior to British law. He was outraged and declared that not since Hitler had there been such a threat to British independence.

For the record, the relevant article (I-6) states: "The constitution and law adopted by the union institutions in exercising competence conferred upon it by the constitution shall have primacy over the law of the member states."

I tried to explain that this meant that in areas where the EU had been given (by its member states) the right to legislate, any law it agreed would take precedence over national laws covering the same issue.

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While trying of course not to give my personal views about the constitution itself, I said this was not new and was logical. You could not have national governments having one law for a given subject and the EU having another.

For example, the EU law allowing EU citizens to live in other member states could not be overridden by a national law that tried to stop them.

I don't know if the caller was convinced, but I doubt it.

Dense document

The fact is that the constitution is an impenetrable document besides which the Da Vinci Code is simplicity itself. I see people doing crosswords and sudoko on the London Underground. I never see anyone reading the draft constitution.

Not only is it highly technical, but it tries to do two things which leaves it open to differing interpretations.

It seeks to express large ambitions - for a common foreign policy for example - but then, in the small print, ensures that these large ambitions are subject to significant restrictions.

In foreign policy, any member state can veto a decision, so a common policy is elusive.

The fact is that the constitution is an impenetrable document besides which the Da Vinci Code is simplicity itself
The supporters of a more integrated Europe can point to the ambition as a good thing; critics can point to it as a bad thing; and the folk in the middle find that this is neither wholly one thing or another.

No wonder the average citizen finds the thing incomprehensible.

It is ironic that the constitution had its origin in a feeling that the EU had become remote from its citizens.

It has ended up alienating some of them even more.

Laeken legacy

It is worth looking again at the so-called Laeken Declaration, made by European leaders at a summit in December 2001 in the royal suburb of Brussels after which it is named.

This declaration began the process of drawing up the constitution. You can judge the constitution by it.

The key passage reads: "Within the union, the European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens. Citizens undoubtedly support the union's broad aims, but they do not always see a connection between those goals and the union's everyday action.

"They want the European institutions to be less unwieldy and rigid and, above all, more efficient and open.

"Many also feel that the union should involve itself more with their particular concerns, instead of intervening, in every detail, in matters by their nature better left to member states' and regions' elected representatives. This is even perceived by some as a threat to their identity."

Has the constitution done that?

For some it might have. For others, it has clearly not.


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