EU seeks to close its institutional wrangling
18.10.07 @ 07:54
LISBON - EU leaders are gathering in Lisbon on Thursday (18 October) in an effort to put a full stop behind the 2005 political debacle, which saw French and Dutch voters rejecting the draft European Constitution.
If all goes as planned, the 27-nation bloc will by the end of tomorrow have politically agreed a new 'Reform Treaty', but much will depend on how far Italy and Poland are prepared to go to defend their particular demands.
The document leaders are to discuss has preserved the core of the original constitution but dropped all state-like elements.
The outline of the treaty was agreed by the same leaders at a summit in June – a meeting soured by Poland's line of argument that World War II losses should translate into stronger political weight in the union today.
During the past three months, legal experts from all EU member states have been working to turn the political deal into a legal text.
But a few issues remain to be cleared up before the union finally closes this six-year long chapter of institutional reform.
Poland continues to be the most unpredictable state. It is pushing ahead with demands that a mechanism allowing countries to block an EU decision for up to two years be written into the treaty, instead of into a legally weaker declaration.
Other member states are almost unanimously against this fearing it will allow the mechanism to be used often, harming the EU's ambitions to ease its decision-making process.
Apart from the Polish issue, Italy has caused consternation by issuing a last-minute complaint over the number of seats it will have in the EU Parliament after the next European elections in 2009.
Rome opposes the principle under which a country's political weight is based on the number of its residents rather than on the number of its citizens, who have the actual right to elect their MEPs. In addition, it wants to have the same number of deputies as France and the UK.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said on the eve of the Lisbon summit that there are several possibilities to overcome this issue and avoid the deadlock.
One proposal floating around suggests that the exact number of MEPs agreed for each member state would be decided later. Under a different scenario, France would lose one seat to Italy - giving all three countries, including the UK - 73 deputies each.
There is general consensus that the EU cannot afford another high-profile failure and neither Warsaw nor Rome has publicly threatened to pull the veto card yet.
However, the unpredictability factor remains high, with Mr Barroso calling on EU leaders to "honour the commitment that they made in June".
"We have a good agreement on the table. I believe it is the best deal that is on offer", he said ahead of the two-day summit, adding "there are no reasons, no excuses not to solve this issue this week".
Austrian, Bulgarian issues
For the sake of an overall agreement, the EU's executive body itself has raised the white flag in the face of Austria's newly-introduced demand concerning an influx of medical students from neighbouring Germany.
Vienna, currently facing legal action for illegally setting quotas of students from other EU states, has demanded a special treaty protocol, which would allow it to set a cap on the number of foreign university students it takes in.
"We are ready to work within the limits of community law", the commission president said, adding that Austria will be given more time to provide Brussels with additional data.
Despite the concession, Mr Barroso said it was "unacceptable" to link the treaty issue with an ordinary legal case.
A similar message was sent to Bulgaria which is unhappy with the spelling of the word 'euro' instead of 'evro' in Bulgarian version of legal documents - yet another topic that may crop up at the summit.
"The question is serious because the EU is a multilingual project and we have no intention to harmonize grammar or pronunciation", Mr Barroso said, adding however "this issue should not be put as a condition during negotiations of the reform treaty".
Meanwhile, it is expected that the Czech Republic, which is demanding a provision in the treaty to allow the transfer of power between the EU and its member states in both directions - will fail to win support.
EU leaders will start their meeting at 18:00 local time on Thursday evening and apart from institutional affairs, they will also discuss the EU's approach to globalisation.
The European Commission is set to reiterate its key message that in a global economy "openness is not a one-way street".
Foreign ministers meanwhile will discuss Libya, Lebanon, the peace process in the Middle East as well as Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe, Chad and the situation in Darfur.