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Europe

Difficult Constitution Talks Open in Rome

The conference in Italy charged with the task of finishing negotiations for a European Constitution convenes Saturday. But with states still far apart on numerous issues, can they finish their work by December?

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Final constitutional negotiations are being conducted in Rome's larger-than-life Palace of Congresses.

All paths lead to Rome. That’s true for Europe, too. In 1957, six European countries came together here to create the core of the European Economic Community. And now, if Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets his way, Rome will be the city where the first-ever European Constitution is completed, a historical document that lays out the foundations for an expanded, 25-member European Union.

On Saturday, leaders from the EU’s current 15 member states and 10 accession states gathered in Rome for the Intergovernmental Conference that is expected to conclude negotiations on Europe’s draft constitution.

But it’s questionable whether negotiations at the Intergovernmental Conference can be concluded prior to December’s planned EU summit. The list of desired changes is lengthy.

Historically charged venue

As the venue for the conference, Berlusconi has chosen the former World’s Expo grounds, the Palace of Congresses, in south Rome – a complex constructed by Mussolini in the 1930s that is filled with massive marble facades, naked, muscle-bound statues and fountains, the kind of architecture glorified by the fascists.

Not all of the leaders attending are comfortable with the historically charged location, but Italian authorities have said it’s the only place available where increased security measures can be adequately imposed. Only two weeks ago, Berlusconi came under fire for remarks in an interview with a British magazine that appeared to depict Mussolini in a favorable light. He’s since said he regretted the remarks.

‘A beginning and an end’

On Saturday, Berlusconi once again impressed on his colleagues the urgency of December’s deadline. If negotiations aren’t completed by then, he warned, it would be difficult to hold a signing ceremony on May 9, 2004, which the constitution designates as a European holiday.

"The constitution represents a beginning and an end," Berlusconi said Saturday morning. "It must mark the end of the divisions of Europe caused by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century... It must mark the beginning of a Europe with strong common institutions, able to ensure peace, security and prosperity for its citizens, and to conduct a strong, independent economic policy for development."

Tough negotiations expected

Before the opening of the conference, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder admonished his EU colleagues not to seek to change the draft constitution, which was negotiated over 16 months at the European Convention in Brussels. Spain and Poland, however, are demanding changes to the weighing of votes as laid out in the draft. The constitution calls for most EU votes to be made up by a double majority – which would require that half of the EU member states making up 60 percent of the population vote in favor of a bill. Madrid and Warsaw say this will give larger EU members, like Germany and France, an advantage over smaller ones.

Austria and a number of smaller EU countries are also demanding that each member state be given a seat on the European Commission. The current draft calls for 15 members of the Commission with voting rights, with those seats rotating between the 25 member states. Austria has also questioned the need for a European Council president, who would preside in office for 2.5 years and be responsible for coordinating EU summits. Britain, meanwhile, is seeking to limit the competencies of the proposed EU foreign minister to the extent possible. Deeply Catholic Poland wants to see a reference to "God" in the text – a move that is strongly opposed by Finland and Hungary.

Finishing a decade’s work

But on Saturday, EU leaders expressed the importance of reaching an agreement on the constitution.

"We believe that it is not just another stopgap treaty," said Pat Cox, president of the European Union. "We believe it is a bridge to stop permanent tinkering with systems in Europe and the possibility to close an endless, decade-long introspection in relation to our institutions."

The first serious round of negotiations is slated to begin on Saturday afternoon, with a meeting of member and accession state foreign ministers. Between now and December, nine additional meetings are planned, and the German delegation is preparing for difficult negotiations. But Chancellor Schröder has said he is optimistic a compromise on the divisive issues can be reached and that reason will win out in the end.

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