Low turnout at EU vote could topple Polish government

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The Independent Online

Poland's President has demanded a change to the draft European Union constitution to include a reference to Christianity in an outburst that has cast a shadow over this weekend's Polish referendum on EU entry.

Speaking at his last campaign rally before the vote, Aleksander Kwasniewski predicted an 80 per cent "yes" vote for membership, but warned that a low turnout could cause the government to collapse.

Under Polish law, the referendum will be binding only if 50 per cent of the population votes; otherwise the government would have to ask parliament to ratify the decision.

Advocates of EU entry have been boosted by the support of the Roman Catholic Church, which remains a powerful force in Poland. But the publication last week of a preamble to the EU constitution being drawn up by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing has provoked an angry reaction.

To the annoyance of Poland's church leaders, M. Giscard's text refers to the influence on European development of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and to the Enlightenment, but avoids any mention of specific religions.

Mr Kwasniewski said he felt deeply on the issue, although he is an agnostic. He argued: "There is no excuse for making a reference to ancient Greece, Rome and the Enlightenment, without making reference to Christian values. The most significant structure in every town or city in Europe is a cathedral or a church. We are related to this tradition even if we are not believers."

The Polish President said he was confident the text would be amended before being presented to EU leaders at a summit in Greece this month. He said the "yes" campaign had been boosted by the Pope's declaration of support for EU membership on May 18, and predicted 80 per cent would back membership on a turnout of "more than 50 per cent".

He spelt out the political dangers for the fragile government, led by Leszek Miller, the social democratic Prime Minister, if much of the electorate stayed at home.

A low turnout would force Poland to ratify its EU membership via its parliament, and Mr Kwasniewski said that, as far as opposition parties were concerned, "the precondition to start some kind of negotiations would be the resignation of the government". In the "short term", the President argued, there could be "some political turbulence and a change of government".

A survey by the OBOP polling group on Monday found that 57 per cent of voters definitely planned to vote - up eight percentage points from April. A further 26 per cent said they would "probably" vote. Of those saying they intended to vote, 74 per cent supported joining the EU.

Mr Kwasniewski stressed the importance of good relations between the EU and America. Warsaw backed the war in the Gulf and is also taking a peace-keeping role in Iraq, sending 2,000 troops. He added: "Neo-conservatism in the US is not a good and easy partner for us."