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Opinion: Re-opening a Constitutional Can of Worms

Bernd Riegert (jp)
May 29, 2006

The French and Dutch rejection of the European Constitution left the project in a state of acute temporary paralysis. One year on, it seems to have found a second wind. DW's Bernd Riegert on the new optimism.

Ursula Plassnik wants to see the EU functioning betterImage: AP

"The Constitution project is a European project," said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, as a meeting of EU foreign ministers came to an end in Vienna at the weekend.

The talks held in a 900-year-old Austrian abbey centered around ways of making Europe function better, with the general consensus appearing to be that the Constitution is a key part of the process.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for one, stressed that "there is absolutely no reason to give up the Constitution." And it's just as well he thinks so, given that the tricky task of jumpstarting this stalled vision will be handed over to his country when Germany takes over the hot seat from Austria early next year.

Bitter debate

Referendum in den Niederlanden
The results of the referendums derailed the Constitution projectImage: AP

But so far, no solution to the constitutional crisis has even been suggested -- although at least the C-word is no longer a dirty one among the bloc's foreign ministers. It doesn't seem so long ago that the French and the Dutch were resolutely refusing to discuss this thorny issue after the shock results of their referendums last year.

But Plassnik, with her iron fist in a velvet glove, has managed to get even the killjoys back at the table together to discuss the project's future.

Germany in the hot seat

But while the mood may be more optimistic, the actual results of the weekend's meeting are on the scanty side.

Everyone agrees that the bloc needs to extend the "period of reflection" launched in June 2005 for another year, allowing for more time to mull which direction it should take and only then take a new look at the Constitution. The key challenge will be extracting a "yes" from the recalcitrant parties without changing the text so painstakingly fleshed out by 15 States, while another option would be convincing these 15 States that a reworking a few clauses might not be such a bad idea after all.

But for the time being, Frank-Walter Steinmeier doesn't have any answers. He'll have to have come up with a few by summer 2007, when it will be his turn to try ushering the EU out of its cul-de-sac. Germany has already pledged to have resolved the issue once and for all by 2009.

Path strewn with obstacles

Merkel bei ihrer EU Erklärung
Angela Merkel wants a God reference in the ConstitutionImage: AP

It's an ambitious goal, and may yet land Berlin in hot water. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's demand that the constitution include a reference to God and Christian belief will complicate her foreign minister's job even further. This dimension to the debate had in fact been considered down and dusted, given that France made it clear it would never agree. By bringing the matter up again, Merkel is opening a whole new can of worms.

Other steps forward have also been thwarted. EU commission President Jose Barrosos's suggestion that certain parts of the Constitution could be adopted separately, "by stealth," as it were, has been put on ice, while Germany is reluctant to see more national responsibility handed over to Brussels.

Some foreign ministers proposed changing the name of the Constitution without actually changing a word in the document. But no one can seriously believe that the European public will be fooled just by switching a label.

Plassnick, meanwhile, is no doubt looking forward to the day when she can pass the buck to her successor.