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Europe

Compromise or Bust for EU Constitution

European Commission President Romano Prodi has challenged EU members, current and future, to come to a consensus on the draft Constitution or risk a crisis.

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Europe's first Constitution is still just a draft on paper.

European Commission President Romano Prodi told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday that if the problematic EU Constitution is to be agreed upon in December as planned then the members must find a compromise by mid-November.

Referring to the EU summit meeting last week where European leaders met to discuss the problems surrounding the draft constitution, Prodi said, "I have to say that the European Council did not make much progress... If a constitution is to be approved by December, it is vital for the Presidency to come forward by mid-November with clear proposals that can meet with consensus."

Prodi said that there were very few points where the draft Constitution needed changing and added that consensus on the draft would lead to a stronger future for all within the EU. More disagreements would lead to a EU crisis, he implied.

Constitution would strengthen EU

"The European Union needs a sound Constitution. Only a sound Constitution can enable the European Union to play its role properly in Europe and the world."

The draft constitution -- designed to streamline decision-making within the EU after it expands to from 15 to 25 members next May -- was painfully born out over 16 months of hard bargaining by a forum of EU ministers and parliamentarians led by former French president Valerie Giscard d'Estaing.

The constitution will determine who holds power in the expanded EU and clear differences remain between individual governments over the voting rights the draft allocates to them, the way it slims down the bloc's executive branch -- the European Commission -- and on the EU's future security and defense policy.

Italians propose compromise package

Earlier in the day, as if to pre-empt Prodi's call for action, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini explained in an interview that Italy will present a package of compromise proposals to foreign ministers from the 25 present and future members of the EU at a meeting in Naples at the end of November.

Frattini told La Repubblica newspaper that the Italians were adamant that they would not push for an agreement on the constitution at any price and Frattini said that negotiations might drag on into next year.

"We don't want a result at any price and we aren't prepared to make concessions of all sorts just to reach a deal," Frattini said. "Our aim is not to engage in excessive mediation but to defend and, if possible, improve the constitution process. We know the exact positions of every country. We now have to reach an agreement on these remaining issues."

Ireland could inherit a crisis

Italy’s rotating EU presidency expires at the end of the year and many hope that the constitution will be ratified by the time the seat is handed to Ireland. But in a situation where nothing is black and white, the problems surrounding the constitution may pass on to Dublin rather than being resolved in advance.

"We have to discuss things and decide in December," Frattini said. "After that there will be two possible scenarios for the Irish presidency which starts in January. Either there will be a political agreement on our proposals or Ireland will have the time to work out the details and complete the drafting of the texts." Such a choice of words disguises the fact it may not be as simple as all that. The Irish may well inherit a crisis if certain countries veto the agreement the Italians prepare.

Spain and future member Poland are particularly annoyed at the way the constitution limits their weight in EU decision-making. One of the six biggest EU members by demographic count, Poland was allocated 27 votes in the EU's decision-making Council of Ministers under the Nice treaty, just two less than Germany despite having half its population.

Spain and Poland fear power of major players

Poland and Spain, which were awarded the same number of votes, have balked at a proposal in the draft constitution under which decisions would pass if they had the support of more than half the member-states representing three-fifths of the EU population.

Warsaw, Madrid and other critics argue this would concentrate power in the hands of bigger member-states -- Britain, France, Germany and Italy -- who all back the draft text.

A number of small countries are also upset that while the constitution stipulates each of the 25 EU states will be represented by a commissioner, only 15 of them will have voting powers.

The Italians are prepared for opposition to the proposals and have discussed an opt-out clause which would enable any country that doesn't ratify the constitution to stay outside it but still have the possibility of automatically coming back in after it changes its mind, Frattini explained.

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