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Europe

EU Foreign Ministers Hope for Breakthrough on Constitution

The European Constitution tops the agenda when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels Monday to revive negotiations for the first time since talks collapsed last December.

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Irish Premier Bertie Ahern has a demanding month ahead of him

During a two-day meeting, EU foreign ministers will be doing their best to solve the many outstanding problems plaguing the Constitution blueprint before it's finalized next month.

One key sticking point is the new voting system. Clashes over this issue led to the breakdown in discussions late last year, with Spain and Poland objecting to the proposed distribution of voting rights.

Reaching consensus

The two countries were keen to retain the system agreed in Nice in 2000 which granted them voting rights disproportionate to their populations. Opposition from France and Germany led to an abrupt and acrimonious end to the summit, and signature of the draft Constitution was put on the backburner until the voting issue could be worked out.

President of the European Parliament Pat Cox told Deutsche Welle on Monday "there's still an appetite and a determination to find a settlement." He said now that Europe is united, it is time to move forward for a consensus on the Constitution, "to move from process to delivery and from design to content."

With Ireland currently holding the rotating EU Presidency, Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern is shoring up support for a deal based on the "double majority" system proposed in the original draft from last year. According to this, most decisions will be taken by a simple majority of member states which represent 60 percent of the EU population, as opposed to the previous system which favored smaller states by giving them a larger voting voice than their population justified.

Ahern hopes the negotiations will go sufficiently smoothly to sign a deal at the summit he'll be hosting in Brussels on June 17, shortly before the current Irish EU presidency expires.

A challenging month for Ireland

The weeks ahead will be tense ones for the Irish Presidency. May saw Ahern visiting European capitals in an attempt to iron out the problems in the current charter -- apparently with some degree of success. Both Spain, which has a new government, and Poland have said the bloc is nearing consensus.

The ministers are also expected to thrash out the controversial reshuffling of the European Commission. The Irish Presidency has suggested that from 2014, the European Commission be reduced to 18 members. This would mean a country would lose its right to have a commissioner for one out of every three terms.

Other than this, Ahern will be avoiding other major institutional proposals during the talks. Ahead of Monday's meeting, an Irish spokesperson said Dublin had "deliberately decided not to put in concrete new poposals as it is "the first relaunch at political level'' of Constitution talks.

Pushing for a new EU foreign minister

Behind the scenes, ministers will also be discussing an early introduction of the new EU foreign minister post -- a position the EU's High representative Javier Solana has his eye on. It would combine his present role with that of the Commissioner for External Relations, a post currently held by Chris Patten, and would make him the EU's sole representative in foreign affairs, dispensing with the support of the foreign ministers of the country holding the 6-month rotating presidency.

As it stands, the EU foreign minister post is set to be introduced in 2009, when the European Commission's instutional changes are implemented. But there are moves afoot to see it come into force earlier, and Solana is expected to raise the issue at today's meeting.

Foreign policy concerns

Aside from the Constitution, ministers will also be looking at foreign policy issues such as the Middle East, Iraq, the Balkans, Syria and Libya.

The EU is keen to improve its ties with Tripoli, but relations are strained by the ongoing disagreement on compensation for victims of a Berlin nightclub bombing masterminded by Libya in 1986.

The main focus of the two-day event, however, will be on preparation of the agenda for the EU leaders' summit in June. No decisions are expected to be taken in Brussels this week, but the meeting will give some indication of whether or not differences on the constitution details will be able to be resolved over the next month.


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