EU near deal on constitution, not on chief

18th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

18 June 2004, BRUSSELS - European Union leaders Friday were edging towards agreement on a watered-down constitution, but remained at loggerheads over naming a new executive president for the 25-nation bloc.

18 June 2004

BRUSSELS - European Union leaders Friday were edging towards agreement on a watered-down constitution, but remained at loggerheads over naming a new executive president for the 25-nation bloc.

"There's a chance to bring this to a good and constructive conclusion," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's chief spokesman, Bela Anda.

EU heavyweights Germany and France backed a constitutional compromise tabled by the Irish EU presidency, said Anda.

"Everyone can live with this," added the European Parliament's envoy to the summit, Elmar Brok.

But the Irish document includes a series of changes to the original draft constitution which mark a clear toning-down of the blueprint to accommodate conflicting demands by individual members of the 25-nation bloc.

Small member states would win more voting clout but at the expense of a simplified system and hopes of reducing chances that a few countries will block EU decisions.

Brok complained the deal would also give small countries too many seats in the European Parliament in proportion to their population.

The EU assembly would expand to 750 members from the present 732 under the deal.

Germany blocked Dutch attempts to toughen up application of the Euro zone stability pact, which bars governments from running up excessive budget deficits.

Berlin will have overshot the 3 per cent of GDP budget deficit limit for three years in a row by the end of 2004.

Even if EU leaders hammer out a constitution deal at the summit, the treaty still has to be approved by national parliaments or put to referendums in all 25 member states - many of which have strong Euro-sceptical views.

This means that final passage of any treaty is by no means assured.

Summit progress on the constitution, however, was not mirrored by a meeting of minds over who should succeed European Commission President Romano Prodi, who leaves office on 31 October.

Germany and France are still backing Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. But Britain, which views the Belgian premier as too much in favour of a centralised "federal" Europe, has said it wants European external relations chief Chris Patten to lead the European Commission.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Verhofstadt's candidacy was probably over. But this was contradicted by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who said he hoped the Belgian leader would still get the job.

A German official countered that in fact Patten had merely been a "tactical" candidate put forward by the bloc's conservatives.

The summit feud reopened the EU split from last year's Iraq war during which France, Germany and Belgium led the EU anti-war camp against Britain and Italy which took part in the conflict.

Horse-trading on what has become a high-stakes issue of national pride resumed Friday after EU leaders failed to reach a deal in late night talks Thursday.

Although Ahern warned that talks would go late into the night and possibly into the weekend, there was speculation that EU leaders would delay nominating a Commission chief until a special summit to be held in July.

The logjam came despite intense pressure on leaders to show they were capable of taking quick decisions following last weekend's European Parliament election debacle marked by low voter turnout and victories for anti-EU candidates.

"If we fail here ... we'll be sending out a bad image," admitted European Parliament President Pat Cox.

With EU leaders split over Verhofstadt and Patten, the door may be opened for a compromise candidate.

Still 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.

Other long-shot candidates include Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Portuguese EU Commissioner Antonio Vitorino. Diplomats said former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen could be a possible compromise.


Subject: German news

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