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Flightless EU Constitution Going the Same Way as the Dodo?

Bernd Riegert (nda)
January 14, 2006

Austria's hopes of breathing new life into the European constitution have had cold water poured over them after the Netherlands announced the treaty was "dead." But is the idea really extinct?

Much like the Dodo, the EU constitution is an unwieldly beast being hunted to extinctionImage: dpa - Bildarchiv

Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot publicly declared what many European leaders had been avoiding saying: that the EU constitution, turned down by Dutch and French voters, appears to have gone the way of another extinct object that failed to take flight -- the dodo.

The dodo was a plump, large bird that could neither run nor fly and which eventually became extinct. The EU constitution is a massive project that took years to put together - and itself failed to lift off when French and Dutch voters said "no" to it last year. The question remains whether it can survive in some form or not.

Austria, which took over the EU presidency on January 1 pledged to work on reviving the constitution and Vienna announced soon after that it would check with the other 24 EU nations by June on how to orchestrate this.

Bot pronounces constitution dead for the Netherlands

Dritte Vollversammlung des Internationalen Strafgerichtshofs in Den Haag
Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Bot read the last rites over the constitution.Image: AP

Just a few days after that announcement, Austria's Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik met with her Dutch counterpart Bernard Bot in The Hague. Bot promptly snuffed out any hopes of a resurrection by saying the European constitution was dead for the Netherlands.

Bot's statement came just days after the Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel insisted that the constitution was "in the middle of ratification" and that "the constitution is not dead."

Jo Leinen, the chairman of the constitutional affairs committee in the European Parliament, and the German member of the European Parliament, shares Austria's desire for the constitution to be kept alive, but warned against renegotiating the text.

"I can’t see what's new that needs to be discussed. We discussed the constitution for four years. Those who want to open a Pandora's Box will get a weaker rather than a better constitution," Leinen said.

Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Leinen recommends that the entire constitution be preserved but made more attractive with an added charter on the "social dimension of Europe."

Leinen sees the EU door shutting if constitution dies

This method was successful in saving the Maastricht Treaty which appeared to be facing almost certain defeat in the 1990's.

Nothing is likely to happen before 2007 when the Dutch and French both hold elections and get possible changes in leadership which may promote a "yes" vote in new referendums. Leinen says if the constitution doesn't go through, no more seats will be made available in the European Parliament.

Jo Leinen
Jo Leinen sees no more new members if the EU constitution fails.Image: Jo Leinen

"Rumania and Bulgaria…well, they've been decided on and they will be the last to get in based on the Treaty of Nice. But it will be hard for Croatia, Macedonia and the others. I think we have a lever here to create some sort of breakthrough," Leinen added.

Chirac's "cherry picking" idea could cause further divisions

French President Jacques Chirac suggested that the best parts of the constitution be "cherry-picked." That idea, as well as one that countries in favor of the constitution team up and move forward with it, has been overwhelmingly rejected, according to Hans-Gert Pöttering, member of the Christian Social Democrats and leader of the European parliament’s largest conservative faction.

"We totally reject these ideas that are coming from Paris, which promote that states in favor of the constitution form their own separate working group. We have seen too many psychological divisions in Europe in the past," Pöttering said.

Of the 25 EU member states, 14 have ratified the treaty, including Germany. But there are no guarantees that countries like Denmark and the UK will follow. As the UK's foreign secretary Jack Straw said: "the treaty is in limbo. That is somewhere between heaven and hell. It is difficult to argue, that it’s not dead."