EU summit showdown over new constitution
10 December 2003 , BRUSSELS/BERLIN - The European Union heads for a summit showdown Friday as leaders of the 15-nation bloc struggle to forge a new constitution before next year's historic enlargement to 25 members. The Brussels meeting comes after what many are dubbing an annus horribilis for the European Union following bitter divisions over the Iraq war, anger over Franco-German trashing of the euro stability pact and battles over a proposed EU military headquarters. A new constitution is clearly needed
10 December 2003
BRUSSELS/BERLIN - The European Union heads for a summit showdown Friday as leaders of the 15-nation bloc struggle to forge a new constitution before next year's historic enlargement to 25 members.
The Brussels meeting comes after what many are dubbing an annus horribilis for the European Union following bitter divisions over the Iraq war, anger over Franco-German trashing of the euro stability pact and battles over a proposed EU military headquarters.
A new constitution is clearly needed to manage a bigger Union. But talks on the treaty have triggered a fierce battle for power among members, with the bloc's smaller countries striving to keep a check on their bigger neighbours' clout.
The emergence of a new and more assertive Germany is not helping matters. With Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the driving seat, Germany has shed its old role as the Union's quiet facilitator and paymaster.
Schroeder, who calls his new assertive manner the "German path," bluntly says Berlin wants more power given its population of 82 million and rank as the world's number three economy after the US and Japan.
In close alliance with French President Jacques Chirac, Schroeder insists on a vision for the EU set out in a draft constitution which is up for final debate at the two-day summit.
But the French-German axis has rattled some current and future members of the Union.
Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz warns the proposed voting system would allow domination of the EU by France, Germany and a third country.
This "double majority" system would allow decisions provided they are backed by at least 50 percent of member states comprising 60 percent of the Union's entire population. This would sharply boost Germany's power in the EU.
Determined not become second rank-rank members, Poland and Spain have dug in their heels and insist on maintaining the EU voting system agreed at the Nice, France summit in 2000 which gave them 27 votes each in the bloc - almost on par with Germany, which although twice as big secured only 29 votes.
Schroeder, Chirac and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who holds the rotating EU presidency, all warn they would rather walk away from a deal in Brussels than agree a weak treaty.
And Berlin and Paris are stepping up pressure on Madrid and Warsaw to fall in line.
"It cannot be that one or two nations block what is seen as progress by all the others," said Chirac at a news briefing with Schroeder in Paris on Tuesday, adding: "I hope Spain and Poland will move towards us - but I'm not sure if they will."
Seeking to water down expectations, Berlusconi says he sees only a 55 percent chance that the Brussels summit will yield a deal.
But voting clout is not the only problem area.
Small EU members are demanding to keep their national members on the European Commission - the EU executive.
Under current EU rules small states get one Commission member and big states get two.
The constitutional draft, however, calls for downsizing the Commission to 15 members (plus 10 non-voting observers).
Schroeder, Chirac and Berlusconi insist a streamlined executive is needed to speed decision-making. But the small states fiercely reject this and look likely to force through their demands.
Plans for independent European defence to be included in the constitution are also an issue of hot debate.
Non-NATO E.U. members Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden oppose calls for a mutual defence clause in the treaty which they say would undermine their neutrality.
A French suggestion to leave the clause in place with an "opt-out" for the four states has been rejected but diplomats say a deal recognizing the four countries' special status as non-aligned nations will probably be done in Brussels.
Although not part of a future constitution, talks will also focus on setting up a separate European strategic planning headquarters as demanded by France and Germany. Britain has ruled out any European operational structures which it fears could duplicate NATO but is believed to have agreed to expanding the EU's military planning unit in Brussels.
Leaders will also adopt a new European security doctrine which promises "robust intervention." However, in a watering down of any EU military role, the compromise eliminates a draft reference to using force through "pre-emptive strikes" and instead talks about "preventive engagement."
As if discord over power, influence and war is not enough, the EU leaders also sharply disagree over God.
Here the debate is over whether the Union needs to include a declaration on Europe's Christian heritage in its constitution.
Catholic Poland is leading the charge for a high-profile mention of the Christian faith, backed by Spain, Italy and Ireland.
Secular France strongly opposes this as does Denmark and most of the northern European states.
The summit is scheduled to be wrapped up in two days but the last time leaders tried to approve such a major treaty - at Nice in 2000 - they only emerged bleary-eyed at 5 a.m. after going into a fifth day of overtime.
If the Brussels summit fails, German reports say a fresh attempt would be made early next year with Schroeder and Chirac hoping that the impending 1 May 2004 EU enlargement will put extra pressure on Poland and Spain to back down.
Subject: German news