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Europe

Germans Back EU Constitution Compromise

EU leaders meeting at a summit in Brussels inch closer to an agreement on Europe's first constitution, but disagreements over the future president of the European Commission have clouded the meetings.

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How will this all end? Germany's Joschka Fischer

The first agenda item of the conference is the draft European Union constitution, which has been held in a state of purgatory since it was outright rejected by Spain and Poland in December. In the time since, a number of compromises have been forged and its chances of a draft getting approved by the end of the summit have increased dramatically.

"As you would expect, there are different points of view," said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose country also currently holds the rotating European Union presidency. "But I think we are closing in on the agreement."

A German government spokesperson said on Friday that Germany was willing to back the Irish proposal, but added that no further changes would get his country's support, Reuters news agency reported.

The remaining key sticking points are arguments over the member states' voting powers. Both Poland and Spain blocked the draft over fears that the proposed new voting system would give too much power to the most-populous countries.

To meet their concerns, the EU's presidency has proposed modifying the "double majority" voting principle. Instead of requiring the support of 50 percent of member states making up 60 percent of the population on key decisions, the new draft sets the figures at 55 - 65 percent respectively. The deal would ensure that the EU's most populous countries, Germany, France and Britain, would not be able to instantly overrule middle and smaller sized members.

Thursday night, the Irish suggested allowing a blocking minority of no less than four states that make up 35 percent of the population.

Poland and Spain hold out for more

Neither Poland nor Spain has thus far agreed to the formula devised by the Irish presidency, but Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka described it Thursday as "a step in the right direction." A member of the Spanish delegation negotiating the deal in Brussels told the French news wire Agence France Presse that although Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had accepted the principle of the double majority voting system, he was unhappy with the 65 percent of the population figure.

Instead, the official said, Spain would call for 50 percent of the member states plus an additional member and that the votes represent two-thirds of the total population of the EU. Spain is also seeking to increase its number of seats in the European Parliament from the 54 seats foreseen in the draft constitution by "three or five" seats, the delegate told AFP.

Fierce debate over Commission president

Though prospects appear good for a deal to be reached on the constitution, the horse-trading over who will be the next head of the European Commission, the EU's executive, after Romano Prodi's mandate expires in October could be far trickier. Germany and France have both backed liberal Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt as their candidate of choice, but the Belgian leader's leanings toward a federalist Europe have made Tony Blair and British politicians uneasy. Verhofstadt also angered London with his steadfast and very vocal opposition of the United States-led war against Iraq.

Blair has sought to block Verhofstadt's nomination, and a British government spokesman said Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia also opposed the Belgian. Instead, London has shown enthusiasm for the conservative European People's Party (EPP) candidate Chris Patten, the EU external affairs commissioner. But Friday afternoon a German government source told Reuters that Patten was no longer a candidate.

Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, also a potential ccontender for the position, again stressed on Friday that he doesn't want the job, as did Ireland's Ahern, who could garner widespread support, on Thursday.

The third tough issue facing summit participants is the role of religion in the constitution. The draft preamble mentions its importance to European culture, but it doesn't explicitly refer to Christianity or God. Led by Italy and Poland, several countries are adamant that it should. But France and Belgium are just as vehement in their opposition of any such mention.

"France isn't anti-Christian. It resolved this type of quarrel 100 years ago. We're not going to reopen this debate," French President Chirac told a news conference.

Decisions on the constitution and a candidate for the commission presidency are expected before the summit closes on Friday.

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