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Europe

EU Constitution Gets Time for Reflection

Late Thursday, EU leaders extended a deadline for ratifying the European Constitution. While it does little to solve the current crisis, many hope the reprieve will help the bloc re-channel its energies for the future.

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Brussels votes to extend ratification process on the constitution

Although the decision to push back the deadline for ratification of the European Constitution does little to mend the crisis that arose in the bloc after France and the Netherlands voted against it in national referenda, many in Brussels hope the one-year delay will give the 25 member states more time to explain the document and the EU's goals to their citizens.

The process of ratifying the document in all current member states was slated to be completed by Nov. 1, 2006. So far only a handful of countries have actually ratified it, either through referenda or parliament votes. In May and June, voters in France and the Netherlands voted against the constitution, whereas Britain opted to postpone a referendum, knowing it would most certainly fail. In Germany, the constitution was approved by both houses of parliament, but President Horst Köhler announced Wednesday that he would halt ratification pending a court appeal.

In the days and weeks running up to the mid-year summit in Brussels, European leaders and officials in Brussels spent a good deal of diplomatic effort worrying about the future of Europe's first constitution, which needs to be ratified by all 25 members before it can go into force. Many had recommended postponing the process, while others such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac lobbied hard to stick to the course and allow all countries to have their say.

Sigh of relief

Juncker und Blair

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, right, meets Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg, Tuesday June 14, 2005

Then at around midnight Thursday after a day of debate, a sigh of relief went out when Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker (photo, with Tony Blair) told reporters that the process of ratifying the document was now on hold.

"We believe that the constitutional treaty has the answers to many questions that Europeans are asking, so we believe the ratification process must continue. There will not be a better treaty. The date of Nov. 1, 2006 to conclude the ratification process is no longer valid. That means giving ourselves more time," said Junker, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

According to diplomats in Brussels, all 25 member states endorsed the decision to suspend the ratification process until at least next year to allow for a "period of reflection" in which they will discuss the future direction of Europe, including enlarging the bloc.

"We are going to need a period of reflection, not only in the Netherlands but in other countries," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said. "We have to find answers to questions about national sovereignty and about financial matters" of the EU, which were two issues that caused the Dutch to vote against the constitution in a referendum earlier this month, he added.

More dialogue with people

Viviane Reding

EU commissioner for education and culture, Viviane Reding.

According to EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding (photo), postponing the ratification process offers a good opportunity for member states to return to their people and explain the content of the constitution. In an interview with DW-WORLD.DE, Reding said the constitution is still alive, but in the referenda it became clear that "people were not informed about the content of the constitution and very often voted on the problems they have with Europe or the problems they have with their governments."

"It will be very worthwhile to have a second look at this constitution and to present it to the public in a better way," she said, adding that conveying information is key to the charter's success and the future of Europe.

"I was always shocked to see how little the citizens of the Europe of 15 knew about the 10 newcomers. It is not enough to have a big welcoming party, you have to explain the advantages and the dangers to the people, to explain what is being done in order to secure a smooth transition," she said.

"Many of our people have not understood the value and the advantages of enlargement and they are afraid of the pitfalls. And all this is happening because nobody has ever taken the responsibility of explaining the enlargement to the citizens of the 15 countries," Reding explained.

EU's future course

The EU has sought to reassure aspiring candidates that its door remains open after France warned that the 25-member bloc's constitutional crisis raises questions about its plans to expand.

French President Chirac said he had doubts about the future expansion plans to allow Bulgaria, Romania and possibly Croatia and Turkey to enter the bloc. He called for a special summit to discuss the future direction of the union.

"Can the union in this new situation really expand without having the proper institutions for it?" he asked the fellow leaders in a prepared text. "I think we need to discuss these important questions together."

Despite such concerns, EU leaders pledged to honor their commitments to countries in line to join the bloc, in draft conclusions from their summit obtained by AFP on Friday.

In the text, the leaders welcomed the signature of an accession treaty on April 25, which they said marks an important new step toward Bulgaria and Romania's membership of the EU in 2007.

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