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Europe

Embattled EU Seeks More Time to Revive Near-Dead Pact

The European Union admitted Saturday there is no hope of rapidly reviving its ailing constitution but sought more time to reflect, a year after French and Dutch voters rejected the controversial pact.

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In time, the EU may end up with a constitution

EU foreign ministers insisted the EU blueprint can still be resurrected, as they gathered for two days of talks on the future of the embattled 25-nation bloc at an Austrian monastery overlooking the Danube.

"The treaty is not dead," said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, stressing that 15 EU states representing 60 percent of European citizens have already ratified it.

"Our proposals today are to continue the reflection period," said Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot. In theory the current period ends next month. "We'd like to prolong the reflection period by a year, for example," he said.

EU leaders officially called a "period of reflection" after last year's double referendum blow to a pact which they had trumpeted as crucial to prevent decision-making gridlock in the expanding half-century old bloc.

But 12 months later -- and despite the fact that 15 EU states have now ratified the pact -- the mood in the 25-nation bloc is if anything more gloomy, with the divide between EU elites and ordinary Europeans as wide as ever.

Merkel bei ihrer EU Erklärung

Merkel wants the constitution in its current form

The Austrian EU presidency, hosting the Klosterneuburg talks to prepare for a mid-June summit, has played down expectations of a breakthrough, putting the accent on initiatives to rebuild popular enthusiasm for the whole EU project.


A deeper problem

But the fact is, the constitution crisis stems from a wider malaise which a few public relations initiatives will do little to tackle.

For some, the morose state of Europe's economy, mired in slow growth and high unemployment, is a key reason for lack of support for Brussels, which is perceived more as creating red tape than unchaining potential.

Others cite the EU's ambitious expansion plans: following its "big bang" enlargement from 15 to 25 countries in May 2004, several more newcomers are waiting in line, including Bulgaria and Romania possibly next year.

On the future of the constitution, there are broadly three schools of thought: that it should be adopted in its current form; that it be ditched; and that it be tinkered with to make it more attractive to voters.

EU Verfassung Volksabstimmung in Frankreich Plakat

French voters rejected the EU constitution a year ago


But realistically, most analysts believe there is no hope of unblocking the broader constitutional dilemma until after next year's French presidential elections to choose a successor to Jacques Chirac. Even then critics laugh at the suggestion that the French could be asked again on something which they so clearly rejected last year.

Steinmeier a rare optimist

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, declined to forecast when the EU will reach an accord on a constitution.

"If you are asking me for a date, you will not get one," she said.

British Europe Minister Geoff Hoon added: "The important thing is that we take some time. We are in the very early days of this discussion. There is no agreed way forward."

But Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country takes over the EU reins in the first half of 2007, was more upbeat even if no immediate breakthrough is expected.

"I assume that the German presidency will be tasked in the first half of 2007 with coming up with substantial proposals by the end of the presidency on how to continue with the ratification process," he told reporters.



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