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Europe

Sticky Negotiations over EU Constitution Continue

The EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss the draft version of the EU constitution. Though sticking points remain, Joscka Fischer thinks they will retain the original.

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Joschka Fischer says more people are coming to the opinion that the constituion is fine as is.

Ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday to discuss a draft version of the European Union constitution, the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer called on Europe's "big three" (Germany, France and Britain) to show solidarity. At the same time, he expressed understanding for smaller member states' concerns about the future distribution of power within the EU.

Unresolved issues related to the constitution may make it difficult for the larger members to present a united front, and the smaller countries may not be willing to let the triumvirate lead the way.

Fischer calls for unity, but understands smaller states' concerns

Before heading off to Brussels, Fischer called on the EU's other larger member states -- France and Britain -- to work together and present a united front on policy matters. Perhaps riding high from the EU's successful intervention in Iran last week, which was spearheaded by the three nations who all sent their foreign ministers to Tehran, Fischer told the German daily newspaper, the Stuttgarter Zeitung, that the Iran mission showed how the "big three" must agree if the EU is to be effective.

But fears of this kind of collective posturing is precisely what has smaller EU member states worried that their larger neighbors are planning a power grab. And structural changes proposed within the EU draft constitution have done little to soothe these fears.

Many of the smaller states are against a proposal to cap the number of representatives to the European Commission at 15, which means each member state won't have a permanent voting representative. Offering an olive branch to the EU's smaller states, Joschka Fischer told reporters in Brussels on Monday that he was sympathetic to such concerns.

"There is clearly a contradiction between the need for efficiency, which supports the idea of a smaller commission, and the symbolic value of each state having its own permanent member," Fischer said. He added that finding a consensus on the matter wouldn't be easy.

Other contentious points remain, including a proposal to replace the EU's rotating presidency with a permanent one and a proposal to replace the current voting system with double majority voting, with influence allocated based on the size of states.

As the end of the year approaches, the ministers are working against the clock to come up with an agreement all will sign on to. Italy, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency hopes to complete negotiations over the constitution by the end of the year.

Back to where they started from

The draft version of the constitution was released to the public in June, after 15 months of careful negotiating within the Convention on the Future of Europe. At the time, many European leaders, Fischer included, warned other nations not to fiddle with the delicate compromises the document contained.

But since then, the EU has received more than 80 requests for changes, which has threatened to unravel the whole process and sparked several rounds of debate. In the end however, Fischer told reporters in Brussels he thinks they will return to the original.

"The more we go around about this, the more the opinion spreads -- without anyone articulating it -- that the draft we already have is actually very good," said Fischer.

Indeed, Fischer's assessment of the situation will have to prove true, if the EU member states are to wrap up the negotiations by the end of the year. Otherwise, the debate may continue well into next year's Irish presidency. Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, admits that he is eager to reach a consensus, but says the foreign ministers should not agree to accept any compromises that would threaten the ability of the EU to work effectively.

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