At a two-day meeting in Naples, the foreign ministers of the future 25 member states of the European Union discussed contentious points of the draft EU constitution. A major breakthrough was not reached.
Is the EU draft constitution in danger of being tabled?
The countdown has begun to ratify the draft constitutional treaty at the next EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in December. While several smaller points of contention were resolved at the foreign minister's conference held last weekend, many open issues still remain.
In fact, the truly difficult decisions still must be made. Chances are only fifty-fifty that the EU will actually ratify a new constitution by the end of this year.
Agreeing to disagree
Noticeably visible at the conference was the solidarity between the UK and Poland. Apparently the two are keen to build a counterweight to the Franco-German axis at the IGC. In particular, the UK wants to block decisions being made by majority voting in the areas of foreign, justice, and tax policy. Poland, like Spain, wants to retain the existing voting rules set out in the Nice Treaty, although these are unfair to larger states.
Germany appeared more humble in its position, refraining from making any new demands and instead focusing on retaining the text of the draft constitution. The atmosphere at the conference was already tense, being overshadowed by the recent dismantling of the Stability and Growth Pact on the part of the Germans and French. Nevertheless, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer denies any deleterious effects of the stability pact fiasco. But in Naples it was evident that the smaller member states soon would seek retribution, maybe even at the upcoming IGC.
To resolve the main problems in the current debate on the constitution, some member states propose postponing a decision on voting rules and how votes of individual member states are weighted. Theoretically, these decisions could be made sometime before 2009 when the constitution is to go into force. However, member states are already practiced in the art of procrastination. At the legendary marathon IGC in Nice three years ago, they agreed in principle to create a constitution, but ultimately made lazy compromises.
Now the lack of resolve in Nice has turned into a painful stumbling block. To repeat such a mistake again with the ratification of the constitution would be fatal. If the issues at debate cannot be resolved in December, then it would be better simply to lengthen the entire constitution-drafting process. In any case, having a good constitution that was debated for a longer period of time is certainly more preferable than having a bad constitution that was throw together just to meet a deadline.
The day was saved when, after earlier debates with NATO and the U.S., the EU member states finally agreed in principle to the fundamentals of a common defense policy. Now member states with the capability can prepare for military missions under the umbrella of the EU.
Any deployment decisions must be underpinned by a unanimous vote in the Council of Ministers. According to the compromise reached in Naples, a military planning unit will be created, but a headquarters will not, which is supposed to allay any concerns from NATO. As usual, it's a typically complicated European compromise.
And in reality, it will have little effect because in all crises and peace missions NATO (with the U.S.) is required. Only when NATO cannot, or will not, take action, will the EU be called on. Germany and France, with their ambitious plans, have yielded to the UK and the U.S.
Bernd Riegert is Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Brussels.