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Latvian lawmakers ratify EU constitution
Updated: 2005-06-02 18:16

RIGA - Lawmakers in new EU member state Latvia ratified the European Union's constitution, giving the text a much-needed boost after its rejection by French and Dutch voters.

Seventy-one deputies in the 100-seat parliament voted for the treaty, five against, and six abstained. The remaining lawmakers were absent.

Two-thirds of lawmakers had to vote in favour the constitution for it to be ratified.

Ahead of the vote, Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks urged lawmakers to endorse the text after it was decisively rejected in popular votes in France and the Netherlands.

"All Europe turns its eyes toward Latvia today. We have a chance to say our 'ja' after the stunning rejections of the constitution in France and the Netherlands," Pabriks said.

The Latvian "ja" breathed new life into the EU basic law, which was broadsided Sunday when 55 percent of French voters rejected it in a referendum, and then again in the Netherlands on Wednesday when an overwhelming 61.6 percent voted "no".

Latvia's constitution does not allow the EU basic law to be validated by a popular vote.

With the Latvian acceptance of the treaty, nine European parliaments -- in Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- have voted in favour of the constitution. Spanish voters endorsed the text in a referendum.

Dutch voters spurned the EU constitution with an overwhelming 61.6 percent voting "no" Wednesday, ignoring calls by most political parties there to support the text, according to unofficial results compiled by the ANP news agency from all the ballots cast in the Netherlands.

Analysts agreed the Dutch "no" vote is not so much anti-Europe but rather directed at the political establishment in general in Brussels and in the Netherlands.

"The result shows the wide chasm between voters and the political establishment which, expressed in these cold figures, is dramatic," centre-left Christian daily Trouw said.

"The outcome is not only a rejection of the EU referendum ... it also a turning point in our democracy," it added.

A poll of voters carried out on the day of the vote by the Maurice de Hond institute showed that of the "no" voters 58 percent said they voted down the treaty because of developments within the EU, such as enlargement, while 30 percent said they opposed the content of the constitution. Eleven percent of the "no" voters explained their vote as a protest over the political situation in the Netherlands.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said he was "disappointed" by the result but promised to honour it.

"It is a clear outcome. Of course I am very disappointed," he told reporters.

"The government will respect the vote," said the prime minister, scheduled to attend a parliamentary debate later Thursday on the outcome of the referendum.

The stinging defeat on the heels of the French voter where nearly 55 percent rejected the charter on Sunday, may prove fatal to a treaty cherished by EU officials but viewed warily by much of the continent's population.

The text must be ratified by all 25 European Union states to become effective.

French President Jacques Chirac said the Dutch voters' decision highlighted people's concerns over the future direction of Europe and should be considered at a European summit in Brussels June 16-17.

Chirac, echoing a call by Balkenende, said the ratification process should carry on regardless. "Now that 11 countries have spoken, it is up to the other member states of the Union to have their say."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder agreed. "I am convinced that we need the constitution if we want a democratic, social-minded and strong Europe," Schroeder said. "The ratification process must continue."

Britain, however, raised deep concerns.

"The verdict of these referendums now raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

Turnout in the Netherlands was 62.8 percent. The referendum was not binding, but the government has pledged to respect the result if turnout exceeded 30 percent.

The latest blow to the treaty, from another of the European Union's six founding members, deepens the sense of crisis among EU leaders who say the draft treaty is crucial to prevent gridlock in the EU following its historic enlargement last year, when 10 mostly ex-communist countries joined.

In the Netherlands, analysts agreed the Dutch "no" vote was not a rejection of European integration but a warning about its pace, coupled with a sense of disillusionment with politics in general.

"I voted no because I don't trust the government," a 65-year-old Amsterdam resident told AFP.

He said he was also unhappy about EU enlargement last year.

"In the Netherlands, more than 40 percent of the people think that Europe is moving too fast with the euro and enlargement with eastern European countries followed by Turkey," said Maurice de Hond, director of one of the main polling institutes in the Netherlands.

Surveys also show that the Dutch fear a rapidly expanding EU could swallow up their nation and that focusing power in Brussels could eventually force the Dutch to revise liberal laws on cannabis, same-sex marriages and euthanasia.

The unofficial results released by ANP late Wednesday did not include Dutch voters abroad who cast their ballot in the mail. The results of those votes will be included in the final, official figures to be published on Monday.

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