Institutional Affairs

France and Austria clash over Constitution

02.10.03 @ 09:36

  1. By Richard Carter

Dominique de Villepin was the first French Foreign Minister to visit Vienna since 1998, when he completed a two-day tour this week.

  • BENITA FERRERO-WALDNER: the Austrian Foreign Minister argued that each country needs its own commissioner. France disagrees. (Photo: European Commission)

Bilaterial visits were suspended after the inclusion of the far-right leader Jorg Haider in Austria's coalition government.

Mr Haider's electoral popularity has since declined dramatically but Franco-Austrian relations now look set to be hit by another important European issue - the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on the draft Constitution, which begins this coming weekend.

Austria finds itself at the head of the group of smaller countries arguing for substantial changes to the draft, whereas France - along with the UK and Germany - are wary of unravelling the text drafted by former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Austria's Foreign Minister, saluted a "new start" in relations between Paris and Vienna but firmly repeated her position that each country should have its own commissioner after enlargement. This is one of the biggest sticking points between the two main groups.

But Mr de Villepin disagreed forcefully, arguing, "let's not forget that the commissioners are not supposed to be representing their country, but acting in the interests of Europe".

He added, "the main thing for us is that the IGC comes to a quick conclusion", meaning that France will not support lengthy debates on changes to the text.

France and Austria were able to agree on one Constitution issue, according to Austrian daily Die Presse. De Villepin said they agreed that "all member states should be treated equally".