The European Parliament gave its overwhelming endorsement to the EU’s first-ever constitution today and urged member governments to quickly follow suit.
The parliament, meeting in Strasbourg, voted 500 to 137, with 40 abstentions, to ratify the new treaty, which is to take effect in 2007 if unanimously ratified across the 25-nation bloc.
The 732-member parliament called on EU governments to move quickly to sell the constitution, which faces widespread opposition in Britain and several other EU-sceptic countries. Lithuania and Hungary have already approved it.
The parliament called on EU governments to ensure “all possible efforts be deployed to inform European citizens clearly and objectively about the content of the constitution”.
“The result of the vote leaves no room for doubt of the support this European parliament has expressed,” said Parliament President Josep Borrell after the MEPs gave the result a boisterous standing ovation.
His remarks were heckled by euro-sceptic members from the UK Independence Party, all of whom voted against and held up placards protesting the constitution, with one saying “this constitution is the death of Europe”.
The parliament’s main four parties - conservative, socialist, liberal-democrat and greens - mostly voted in favour, while communists, far-right parties and British conservatives voted against.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country holds the EU presidency, urged all EU governments and the European Parliament to ratify the treaty, signed in Rome last October after a two-year drafting process.
“This is an important moment in the history of the parliament, and it is an important moment in Europe’s ratification of Europe’s constitution,” said Juncker.
The 460-article constitution provides for an EU foreign minister and a president to be appointed by the EU leaders.
It streamlines EU decision-making, ending vetoes in almost 50 new policy areas, including judicial and police cooperation, education and economic policy. But veto rights remain in sensitive areas such as foreign affairs, defence, social security, taxation and culture.
The constitution gives the EU simpler voting rules ensuring that decisions are adopted if at least 65% of the member states are in agreement and they represent at least 55% of the EU population of 455 million people.
Also, it will be easier for nations to opt out of EU policies they don’t like or band together and forge ahead without others being able to stop them as is now the case.
For the first time since the creation of the union in 1957, member states can voluntarily leave the bloc.
“The ratification will not be easy everywhere,” Juncker told the EU assembly. “Of course the constitution is not perfect, but let’s judge this by the yardstick of what Europe needs.”
It faces referendums in at least nine countries, including Ireland, Britain and Denmark. Euro-sceptic opinion runs strong in the latter two countries. Spain holds the first referendum on February 20.
Opponents, especially in Britain, see the constitution as the basis for a European “super-state”.
Proponents say it will accelerate EU decision-making and give the bloc a political profile on the world stages matching its huge economic clout.
It is not clear what would happen if any country rejects the constitution. The new treaty contains no provision for rejection, beyond calling for an emergency summit.