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5th Mar 2024

EU agrees 2009 treaty deadline but rifts remain

Foreign ministers have agreed a 2009 deadline for consensus on a new EU treaty, while the European Commission suffered a blow with two of its key proposals failing to win support.

"The sky is clearing up …the thunderstorm clouds of the last year are slowly disappearing," the Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik told a news conference after two days of talks in Klosterneuburg abbey near Vienna over the weekend (27-28 May).

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The talks produced fresh consensus on the need for EU treaty changes to be agreed at least before 2009.

"We are all aware that in 2009 at the latest we need to have clarity on our legal basis," said Ms Plassnik, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.

"Nobody asked for the extension of the reflection period indefinitely," she added, referring to the political pause member states agreed last year after France and the Netherlands rejected the EU constitution in referendums.

"The German presidency [in the first half of 2007] has already announced that it is willing to develop substantial proposals," said Ms Plassnik.

The 2007-2009 timeframe is set to be included in the conclusions of an EU leaders' summit in mid June, with wrangling over the exact wording expected to continue until the last minute.

What's in a name?

The weekend meeting also saw support for the idea that the term "EU constitution" be dropped, in order for any text to be ratified in France or the Netherlands.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country is a firm supporter of the charter, said "In Germany, we live with a basic treaty which does not carry the name Constitution, but has the same legal quality. In this respect this is a point of departure."

But German diplomats were quick to say that Berlin is not ready to renegotiate the substance of the text - although a simple name change is not likely to satisfy France and the Netherlands.

Signalling a tough battle between two camps of member states, Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot stated "you will see that states which have already ratified the constitution will put pressure on France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Poland, which have no intention to ratify the treaty."

The Hague is under domestic pressure to secure substantial changes to the charter's text, with a poll for Dutch public television over the weekend revealing that 83 percent of the Dutch want another referendum if the constitution text is revised.

Commission suffers blow

Meanwhile, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, who attended the Klosterneuburg talks, failed to gain support for two key initiatives he proposed earlier this month.

Mr Barroso had asked EU leaders to sign a solemn declaration next year on the EU's goals and values, 50 years after the European Community was founded in 1957, in a bid to end the bloc's constitutional impasse.

But foreign ministers gave the idea a lukewarm reception, with one source saying most member states are not interested in a "vague declaration on how much we love the EU".

A second flagship proposal to shift more competences in justice and criminal matters to the EU level also got stranded in Klosterneuburg.

Brussels wants EU leaders, at their June summit, to use the so-called passerelle clause in the present Nice treaty, which provides for a reduction of national vetoes in this area.

But Austria's Ms Plassnik said it is "unlikely that we will make a big jump forward" leading Mr Barroso to admit that "maybe it is too soon."

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