Spanish voters approved the European Union’s new constitution by an overwhelming majority in Sunday’s referendum — the first time that a EU country had put the charter to a popular vote. This victory is no cause for complacency, however. The document, signed in October, will not take effect if it is rejected by any member state. One can only hope that the Spanish vote will have a positive effect on ratification proceedings in the rest of the union.

The EU’s first constitution embodies the basic principles of European unification. As such, the charter lays out guidelines for integration in a broad range of fields, including politics, economy and social security. It provides for, among other things, the creation of the posts of EU president and foreign minister, the greater empowerment of the European Parliament, and a strengthening of common foreign and security policy. The document also incorporates a bill of rights.

Putting it into effect, however, will require clearing many hurdles, including psychological ones, that stand in the way of integration. These include worries about the effects of integration on national sovereignty, economic disparities between old and new members, and difficulties in harmonizing market-based economic principles with social security policy.

The outcome of the referendum, in which nearly 80 percent of the ballots supported the charter, is likely to help bolster the administration of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Winning the ratification vote was a major political priority for his administration, which came into power in a general election held in March 2004, immediately following the terrorist bombing of a train in Madrid.

But voter turnout, at only 42 percent, remained at a discouragingly low level, indicating that the EU Constitution does not have the broad support of the Spanish public.

With referendums due to be held in nine other countries from this year to next, the governments of those countries should take their cue from Spain’s experience and make maximum efforts to promote public understanding of the charter.

The EU is going through a historic transition. Last year its membership increased to 25 with the entry of 10 new countries — eight from Central and Eastern Europe and two from the Mediterranean region. Expanded EU membership bears witness to the end of the European division that had continued ever since the Cold War created the Iron Curtain between East and West.

The constitution reflects a lesson from the Iraq War: the need to establish common foreign and security policy among European countries. It is a lesson drawn from the fact that the U.S.-led invasion has created a deep policy split between France and Germany on the one hand, and Britain on the other. The document underscores multilateralism, or U.N.-centered diplomacy, as the basic approach to settling international disputes, although it calls for cooperation with NATO.

This approach is premised on trans-Atlantic cooperation, which is indispensable for global stability. That is why U.S. President George W. Bush’s fence-mending European tour — which started over the weekend — is so important. Still, Europeans remain skeptical about America’s willingness to abandon unilateralist tendencies. Further European integration will help promote multilateral diplomacy and give the EU a greater say in international politics. Ratification of the constitution is an essential step in this direction.

Differences exist, of course, in the way the governments and peoples of member states look at the new charter. Many continue to believe that the EU should be a loose “federation” of sovereign states. Britons see the constitution as undermining their country’s sovereignty. Smaller states worry that integration would reduce their say. Poland, dismayed by their aborted proposal to insert Christian language in the Constitution, is skeptical.

Another problem is the economic gap between rich and poor members. The euro is contributing to the freer movement of people, goods and services as well as money. The defeat of Portugal’s ruling party in Sunday’s national election is attributed to higher unemployment resulting from austerity measures necessitated by the euro’s introduction. Leftist members of the European Parliament contend that the emphasis on “market fundamentalism” is intensifying competition.

For the EU Constitution to take effect, these and other roadblocks to ratification must be cleared one way or another. All this, along with harmonizing domestic legislation with the union’s basic law, is going to be a daunting task. But Europe has crossed the Rubicon. Pushing for multipolarity is the only way it can proceed.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.