Austria promised Monday to inject momentum into the European Union during its six-month presidency. It insisted the bloc's first constitution was not dead despite rejection from French and Dutch voters.
The constitution can still be revived
Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel said his country would focus on reviving the text of the constitution as well as bridging the gap between EU institutions and citizens after talks in Vienna on Monday with the European Commission and its president Jose Manuel Barroso.
"The constitution is not dead, but it is not in force," he said at a news conference with Barroso. He added that the document was still in the midst of a ratification process.
European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, right, and Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel
The EU Constitution, which is aimed at reducing decision gridlock in the expanding bloc, was put on hold last June after referendums in France and the Netherlands produced stinging rejections.
"We must give Europe new momentum this year," Schüssel said. "We cannot do it with just rhetoric; we must support it with concrete action."
He confirmed plans to present proposals on the future of Europe and a progress evaluation on the shelved constitution at a June summit which will mark the end of Vienna's turn at the EU helm.
"We have promised ourselves that we will restart the negotiations on the constitution. We will not be able to resolve the matter entirely, that is clear," Schüssel said.
Schüssel welcomes EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner as Barroso and Plassnik look on
In a first demonstration of Austria's ambitions, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik announced she will visit France and Netherlands later this week. "The European constitution will be a central theme of the talks," the ministry said and hoped to find an open ear in Paris and The Hauge.
Focus on cooperation
In his statements regarding the future of Europe, Schüssel emphasized cooperation in Europe after a difficult year which, in addition to the derailed constitution, also saw terror attacks in London and sharp divisions over the EU budget and further expansion to include Turkey.
"It is very important we do not create new divisions within Europe," he stressed.
Schüssel also addressed the need to reassess EU priorities, to focus not just on institutions but on visibility, a "European way of life," and greater communication with European citizens.
Barroso, for his part, admitted that Europe had institutional problems but advocated "climate change" and said ministers would listen "to the opinion of all the member states" before tabling further ideas and proposals.
Austria took over the rotating EU presidency from Britain on Jan. 1 and will be succeeded by Finland in July. Monday's talks and news conference were the first major public event of its presidency.