EU constitution back on the political agenda
15.12.06 @ 01:19
BRUSSELS - The European Constitution moved back onto the EU's political high table on Thursday (14 December) for the first time since it was rejected in two referendums 18 months ago.
Finnish prime minister Matti Vanhanen gave an overview to his colleagues of member states' positions on the document - currently in no man's land with most countries having ratified it but a significant few glad not to have to.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Vanhanen said that member states agreed that "treaty reform is needed" and they "cannot throw out the entire text (...) and start from scratch."
He went on to say that most, but not all member states, would like "to retain at least as much of the substance as possible."
This statement fits in with more sceptical views about the constitution – such as those of the UK.
For his part, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso publicly offered his support to German chancellor Angela Merkel's drive to get the constitution talks back on track when her country takes over the presidency in January.
"I believe we are going to make real progress during the next presidency," said Mr Barroso after the chancellor outlined her constitution plan of action over dinner with her colleagues.
Joint Spain, Luxembourg initiative
She suggested that there should be a short inter-governmental conference to agree the constitution and that part of the solution for agreement could be removing any bits that are likely to be problematic.
Meanwhile, the Europe ministers of Luxemboug and Spain, Nicolas Schmit and Alberto Navarro, have called for two constitution meetings early next year.
The first for those who have ratified the text – 18 countries by then – on 26 January in Madrid and the second on 27 February in Luxembourg for those who have not yet ratified the treaty – plus France and the Netherlands who rejected it.
Their joint letter, circulated at the summit, notes that those countries who have already approved the text have a "particular interest" in helping the Germany presidency to restart the process of reform "keeping the substance" of the text.
However, it is likely that those countries will have to ratify the text again – something alluded to by the Czech leader Mirek Topolanek.
On top of everything else, disagreement remains about the timetable. While Germany is set to push for a quick process - its EU ambassador recently suggested a text should be hammered out by the end of next year - others are not so sure.
Denmark's Anders Fogh Rasmussen said "we are definitely for a short process", but Finland's Mr Vanhanen said he believed negotiations would last until the end of the 2008.
Justice veto, enlargement
Meanwhile, a discussion on a proposal by the European Commission to speed up justice-related decisions in the EU by making use of the so called "passerelle" clause in the EU treaty - which would remove member states' vetoes - ended in an "impasse," sources present at the meeting said.
"There was a lively discussion, with Poland remaining opposed, but we are not alone in this...," said Polish president Lech Kaczynski with Germany, the UK and Ireland seen as the main opponents of the shift of justice decisions to the EU level.
A Finnish proposal to fudge the issue in the draft conclusions with a reference to the EU constitution - which also proposed to lift the national justice veto - was rejected by several states including the Netherlands and the presidency was expected to re-draft the conclusions overnight.
Thursday's debate on enlargement focused mainly on the Western Balkans, with general discussions on the pace of EU expansion set to continue on Friday.
Italian prime minister Romano Prodi made a strong plea for strengthening the membership perspective of the Balkans - by speeding up talks with Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia - but Belgium the Netherlands and Luxembourg were among those stressing the need for institutional reform of the EU first.