Institutional Affairs

Foreign ministers hold cloistered talks on EU future

26.05.06 @ 10:26

  1. By Mark Beunderman

BRUSSELS - EU foreign ministers will this weekend gather in a monastery near Vienna for what could prove to be key talks on the future of the EU, amid deep divisions on the fate of the bloc's constitution.

Ministers are expected to bring only their closest aids to the conclave, taking place at the Augustinian Klosterneuburg Abbey on Saturday and Sunday (27-28 May), with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and commissioners Margot Wallstrom (communication) and Benita Ferrero-Waldner (external relations) also attending.

The extra meeting was scheduled by the Austrian EU presidency in a bid to overcome member states' grave differences on the way forward after last year's "no" votes to the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands.

An Austrian diplomat said the gathering is "not a text-drafting exercise" but the agenda of the meeting covers key parts of draft conclusions of an EU leaders' summit on 15-16 June in Brussels.

Ministers will jet into Vienna on Saturday for a 12.30 aperitif at the monastery, followed by a working lunch on the results of the so-called "reflection period" of the EU, agreed by member states last year after the French and Dutch referendum fiascos.

Several member states have embarked on listening exercises on citizens' concerns and expectations for the EU, resulting in multi-faceted if not contradictory signals.

Recent Dutch research revealed, for example, that half of the respondents said that changes in the EU are going "too fast" but at the same time 70 per cent favour a common EU asylum policy.

Austrian chancellor has characterised similar ambiguities in the latest European Commission Eurobarometer poll as "schizophrenic."

Constitution and enlargement

After their Saturday lunch, ministers will debate the EU constitution and enlargement, with France and the Netherlands expected to highlight uncontrolled enlargement of the bloc as a prime reason behind their failed referendums.

Paris and The Hague have both circulated plans to slow down future expansion of the union, pushing for a toughening-up of safeguards in negotiations with EU hopefuls such as the Western Balkans and Turkey.

But this idea is disliked by "new" member states such as Slovakia, as well as the UK.

Meanwhile, the debate on the constitution is set to focus on "cherry-picking" from the charter.

Germany and Ireland are strongly opposed to plans by the European Commission to shift more competences on justice and criminal matters to the EU level, effectively reducing national vetoes, under the current EU treaty rules.

Berlin and Dublin see this as implementation of one single part of the constitution, which also foresaw a limitation of member states' vetoes on justice matters.

The Germans and the Irish had only hesitantly agreed to stronger EU powers in the constitution in this area because they got "other things in return," said European diplomats.

EU foreign minister

The question of "cherry-picking" is also set to come up at ministers' Saturday dinner which focuses on the effectiveness of EU foreign policy.

Ministers will ask how Europe's voice in the world can be enhanced without the tools provided for by the EU constitution, such as a common EU foreign minister and a common diplomatic service.

But states like the Netherlands will take care that practical improvements within the existing treaties will not lead to the introduction of an EU foreign minister "through the back door."

On Sunday morning, ministers will begin preparing the agenda of the EU leaders' summit in June.

A draft version of the summit's conclusions which was discussed by member states' ambassadors this week still leaves key parts open – notably on the constitution, enlargement and foreign policy.

2007 declaration

Member states' Brussels representatives clashed over where to put the EU constitution in the June conclusions, with pro-constitution states like Belgium against naming the charter only at the very bottom of the text.

They also wrangled over wording on the role of national parliaments in the EU, which have been invited by the commission to play a stronger role in overseeing EU legislation.

Meanwhile, Mr Barroso is in Klosterneuburg set to press for clear wording in the summit conclusions endorsing his plan for a 2007 declaration on the EU's goals and values.

Brussels hopes this declaration will nail down a policy consensus forming the basis for a "new institutional settlement" at a later stage.

The Austrian presidency is expected to hammer out new draft summit conclusions on the basis of the Klosterneuburg meeting, which ends on Sunday afternoon.