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Europe

EU foreign ministers set the stage for clash over financial regulations

Germany and France annoyed EU partners at pre-summit talks with plans to add tougher financial rules to the Lisbon Treaty. However, agreement was reached on Serbia's progress to EU membership.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

EU partners accused France and Germany of trying to throw their weight around

A German and French bid to rewrite the European Union's hard-fought Lisbon Treaty sparked fresh criticism from fellow EU nations at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday. The issue is expected to be a major bone of contention when EU leaders get together for a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed a week ago to push for changes to the treaty to establish a permanent eurozone bailout system and strip countries that break euro rules of their voting rights. But the call "leaves a bad taste" for other EU states that feel they are being told what to do, said Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn.

Asselborn also expressed the fear that any move to rewrite the treaty would bring with it the "risk that we will be plunged back into months and years of navel-gazing" after the "decade" of angst leading up to Lisbon.

Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, who chaired the talks in Luxembourg, said countries were wary of opening up a Pandora's box of institutional reform.

"Nobody around the table wants to open up the treaty and change it fundamentally," Vanackere told reporters.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has faced a backlash at home over the crisis

Germany holds the purse strings

Germany has said it will only make permanent its lion's share contribution to a three-year fund of emergency loans for struggling eurozone countries if the EU treaty is changed. Otherwise it fears its constitutional court in Karlsruhe will block the move.

"We want to protect our citizens' currency and that means learning the lessons of the crisis," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

"If we find ourselves back in the situation we experienced with Greece in the spring, Europe will move dangerously close to the brink," he warned.

The 750-billion euro ($1 trillion) fund was established earlier this year with backing from the International Monetary Fund, after widespread fears that the Greek debt crisis could spread to other member nations.

The Franco-German proposal did receive limited support. Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said he was open to the idea, adding that "at the end of the day, as long as the rules are tight, I'm happy."

Serbia teetering toward the EU

Most of the focus at the Luxembourg meeting, however, fell on Serbia, which EU foreign ministers allowed take a small step towards eventual membership - on condition that the country step up its efforts to confront its violent past.

Serbia has gained support for its EU candidacy since agreeing in July to hold talks with its breakaway province Kosovo. In Brussels, the foreign ministers agreed to pass on Serbia's membership bid to the EU's executive arm, the European Commission. It is expected to closely examine Serbia's legal code, political standards and diplomacy record over the next 12-18 months to see whether the country is ready for EU accession.

Students in Kosovo dance with the Albanian flag

Serbia gained support when it agreed to enter talks with Kosovo

But the ministers also stressed that "further steps will be taken when the council [of EU states] unanimously decides that full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) exists."

"Serbia's assistance in the key matter of the arrest of the two remaining fugitives, [indicted war criminals] Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic ... would be the most convincing proof of Serbia's efforts and cooperation with ICTY," their joint declaration said.

Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic is accused of masterminding the massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the eastern enclave of Srebrenica in 1995.

Vimont to manage new EU foreign ministry

Also on Monday, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Aston, appointed the French ambassador to the US as her deputy.

Pierre Vimont, described as a "diplomat's diplomat," is to manage the day-to-day activities of the EU's new diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, which was established under the Lisbon Treaty in an effort to give the bloc a higher profile on the world stage.

"I promised to appoint the brightest and best," Ashton said in a statement, adding, "I have done just that."

Author: David Levitz (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

Editor: Chuck Penfold

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