EU leaders upbeat on constitution, presidency

17th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

17 June 2004, BRUSSELS - Declaring they were upbeat on reaching a deal, European Union leaders opened a key summit Thursday which seeks to end deadlock over a new constitution and choose a new president for the 25-nation bloc.

17 June 2004

BRUSSELS - Declaring they were upbeat on reaching a deal, European Union leaders opened a key summit Thursday which seeks to end deadlock over a new constitution and choose a new president for the 25-nation bloc.

"We have a good chance to finish this up ... If we make an effort it will work out," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in remarks to reporters.

Outgoing European Commission President Romano Prodi said a few key points had not been decided but that he was "fairly optimistic."

The stakes are high in Brussels after last weekend's disastrous European Parliament elections showed deep voter apathy and strong gains for anti-European Union parties.

EU leaders failed to agree a constitution at an acrimonious summit last December with pitted heavyweights Germany and France against Spain and Poland in a battle over power sharing.

The list of unresolved constitutional issues has now been whittled down to a handful of the most difficult questions.

High up on this list are demands by Spain and Poland that a planned "double majority" system for decision-making prevent the EU's Big Three - Germany, France and Britain - from being able to ram through or block decisions at the EU council of ministers.

Madrid and Warsaw say EU decisions should be approved by 55 percent of member states representing 65 percent of the population, instead of the 50-60 formula in the current draft constitution.

In another bid to curb clout of the Big Three, this provision could come with an added restriction that a blocking minority of countries should include at least four states.

Britain, meanwhile, is sticking to what Prime Minister Tony Blair terms his "red lines" under which London wants to keep under its national veto over taxation, social security, foreign and security policy. Germany and France want EU majority voting on these issues.

Seven nations led by Poland want a reference to Europe's Christian heritage and God in the treaty, a move opposed by secular France among others.

Complicating the debate is a new row between Germany and the Netherlands over the application of the Euro zone rule limiting budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP.

Berlin, which will have overshot this limit for three years in a row by the end of 2004, wants to water down the right of the European Commission to direct it to make spending cuts.

This is angrily rejected by the Dutch as well as the Austrians which have kept state spending within Euro zone parameters.

Even if EU leaders hammer out an overall constitutional deal, it must be stressed the treaty is not a done deal until it is approved by all 25 member states - many of which plan to hold national referendums on the constitution, including Euro-sceptical Britain.

If the European Parliament voting is any indication of what lies ahead, public approval of the new charter is by no means guaranteed.

"The summit may well reach agreement on the constitution - but I have strong doubts as to whether it will be ratified by all 25 members," said Spyros Economides, a European specialist in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics.

A summit clash is also expected over appointment of a new European Commission president to replace Prodi who leaves office in November.

"There is no frontrunner at the moment," admitted Estonian Foreign Minister Kristina Ojuland.

Leaders arrived in Brussels sharply divided on who should lead the EU executive, with Britain's Blair firmly opposed to Franco-German favourite Belgian Premier Guy Verhofstadt.

The 51-year old Verhofstadt is viewed as too "federalist" in pushing for a unified EU and too anti-American by Blair, who has not forgotten a security summit hosted by Verhofstadt with France and Germany last year.

Defending his boss, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said: "He's a federalist - but he's not an extremist."

Also in the running - although he insists he does not want the job - is Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

A further candidate is Ireland's Ahern who also claims he does not want the job while stating "if I was really interested in this job, it would be mine."

Other long-shot candidates include Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Portuguese EU Commissioner Antonio Vitorino, German EU Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, EU chief diplomat Javier Solana and former Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis.


Subject: German news

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