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Europe

EU States Begin Constitution Negotiations in Rome

EU members -- present and future -- gathered in Rome Saturday to begin final negotations on an EU constitution. But with countries still split over the draft, much work remains before the conference's December deadline.

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The future face of the EU: 25 faces, 25 opinions.

ROME -- The leaders of the European Union’s 15 current members, along with the 10 accession states set to join in May, sat at a massive table in the middle of a marble-lined ceremonial room at Rome’s Palace of Congresses on Saturday.

They were joined by candidate states Bulgaria, Rumania and Turkey, which were bestowed with observer status, and the presidents of the European Commission and European Parliament.

Each party politely recited their known positions about the draft European Constitution. Though each country was only permitted to speak for four minutes, it took two hours before all the countries were finished.

The symbolic opening of the Intergovernmental Conference underscored the problems the European Union faces as it expands from 15 to 25 members next year. The EU will become much more difficult to steer and decision-making processes will last much longer. For that reason, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said, expansion and the agreement over a constitutionaintended to create effective institutions, are two sides of the same coin.

"We believe the draft before us realizes the potential of reaching a general consensus, and that’s why we’re supporting it," Schröder said.

Germany, France, Italy back draft

France and Italy also called on delegates at the conference to approve the current version of the constitution as drafted by former French President Valery Giscard D’Estaing at the European Convention after 16 months of work in Brussels.

But Spain and Poland, are demanding changes to the weighing of votes as foreseen 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. Fifteen smaller EU countries, including Denmark, are demanding that they each be given a seat on the European Commission.

"I think we can make a compromise during these three months where we have for every country a commissioner with a voting right, but we have to look into the question of the portfolios," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller told Deutsche Welle.

Sources told Deutsche Welle that the German delegation was prepared to discuss the number of commissioners , even though enlarging the Commission wouldn’t make the EU’s top policy-making body and more efficient in decision-making.

Berlusconi: Step up to the challenge

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who as rotating president of the EU presidency led the meeting, warned countries not to put their own national interests above the common good the European Union.

"No constitution can come into being and have a chance of surviving if the vital national interests of even one member state are left out of the equation," he said. "All nations must sign it. Yet putting those national interests first and foremost is also an insurmountable obstacle for the birth of a genuine constitution."

Germany’s Schröder, meanwhile, said he believed a deal would be achieved by the December deadline.

"I believe that the ultimate decision, as always at such conferences, will be met in December," the chancellor said. "In any case, I hope we’ve covered the necessary distance by then and can decide in December. Then we’ll also see if and which possibilities for compromise exist."

At the same time, Schröder warned against high expectations at the start of the negotiations in Rome.

"Ultimate decisions never come at the opening of a government conference, and none of us expected that," Schröder said.

But on Saturday, the differences of opinion still divided the leaders. Drawing what he described as a "red line that could not be crossed," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stood behind the United Kingdom’s position that the role of the planned EU foreign secretary should be limited.

The financing carrot

Some leaders also made implicit financial threats to encourage nations that have criticized the draft constitution to jump on the bandwagon. After its expansion, the EU will have to restructure its finances, contributions and subsidies. Though Germany’s Schröder said that no country should give financial incentives for another country to agree to the constitution, he hinted that countries not backing it might suffer when it comes to EU funding.

"Of course there’s a link," he said.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who will be attending the remaining negotiation sessions, said there was no formal connection between the constitution and EU financing. However, he warned that if the Intergovernmental Conference extended its work beyond the agreed to deadline, there could be problems.

"I don’t have to point out the fact that it would be an undesirable prospect for us to deal simultaneously with unsolved institutional issues as well as financing issues, the negotiations surrounding which we’ve all recognized as difficult," Fischer said.

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  • Date 05.10.2003
  • Author Bernd Riegert
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/48Uc
  • Date 05.10.2003
  • Author Bernd Riegert
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/48Uc