Richard North, 24/07/2004  

Never trust a politician – at least, if his name is Pedro Santana Lopes. This is the new prime minister of Portugal and, not a month in office, is backing away from his predecessor’s "firm commitment to hold a referendum on the EU constitution".

Lopes’s programme for the next two years, presented to parliament yesterday, referred only to "educating the public about the constitution and its implications", "with a view to a possible referendum on the issue".

According to Agence France Presse, referendums in Portugal traditionally suffer from extremely low voter turnout, which may have influenced Lopes. In the most recent referendum held in 1998, only 31 percent of all eligible voters participated, voting by a slim margin to keep the nation's highly restrictive abortion laws in place.

A referendum, even if in favour of the constitution, with such a small turnout, could, in the government’s view, do more harm than good. But, perhaps, this is a shot across the bows of former Maoist student, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, now installed as head honcho of the commission, warning him that he cannot take his home country for granted.

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