Constitution horse-trading enters crucial phase
By Honor Mahony
The next three weeks are set to be the deciding phase for whether a European Constitution can be achieved within the first half of this year and so under the current Irish EU Presidency.
While Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern has publicly met his counterparts from all of the key players in the treaty negotiations - France, Germany, the UK, Spain and Poland - background negotiations will continue over the next few weeks to see where a compromise can be found.
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On this basis, Dublin will draw up a progress report for EU leaders later this month (25-26 March).
"The Spring Council is crucial for the Constitution", an Irish diplomat told the EUobserver adding it will determine whether a deal can be made within the Irish Presidency.
"It is extremely difficult. As usual, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and no state wants to be the first one to make a concession".
However, Ireland, which is determinedly pursuing the ambition of securing the Constitution deal, is hoping for just that type of breakthrough.
Ticking the boxes
The Irish report to EU governments will consist of a summary of areas that are "ticked off" as having been agreed. The more ticked off boxes there are, the greater the likelihood that member states will agree to formal talks on the Constitution being reconvened.
"If they agree, the IGC could be called immediately".
But there is still much hard talking to be done. Most, but not all of it, revolves around the proposed new voting system, the number of commissioners and number of seats in the European Parliament.
The new voting system - based on a double majority of population and number of member states - caused the Constitution talks to collapse in bitter acrimony last December.
However, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer recently reiterated that the system, as then, is still the sine qua non for Germany.
On top of that, issues such as whether foreign policy and tax issues should still be subject to a veto remain open.
However, it is important that the Irish do not do a deal just with Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Warsaw and London.
"We have been hearing from several of our partner countries that a deal should not be presented as a fait accompli", said the Irish diplomat.
Poland and Spain - keenly watched
There are two outside influences that Irish diplomats are watching with keen interest - the Spanish elections on 14 March and the possibility that the Polish government could collapse following domestic turmoil.
Both countries are putting up hard resistance to the new voting system - Madrid because it wants to be able to form a blocking minority in the Council and Poland more so it can be considered as on a par with bigger states - particularly with Germany.
Spanish Premier José Maria Aznar, who has continued to be unapologetic for his country's stance, will step down after the elections.
His likely successor, Mariano Rajoy, may take a more conciliatory approach - which may be the catalyst that the process needs.
It is both this, and the fact that negotiations are not going to get easier in the second half of the year, that the Irish Presidency is counting on.
Ireland also has other things in its favour: it does not appear to have an axe to grind so is perceived as an honest broker - the country is actually better off under the Nice Treaty voting system - and it is a small member state with less of a political ego to throw around.
"I am reasonably confident that there will be a deal", said a source close to the Irish Presidency.