Select group of politicians to tackle EU constitution
By Honor Mahony
Work on the EU constitution is to begin again in an informal manner when a "wise" group of politicians and officials from across Europe meet this weekend to see if they can come up with solutions to pull Europe out of its institutional impasse.
Italian former prime minister Giuliano Amato, who was vice-president of the 200-strong body that drew up the constitution six years ago, is the driver behind the group which will have its first meeting in Rome on Saturday (30 September).
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Supported by the European Commission which is sending two commissioners - Danuta Hubner (regional policy) and Margot Wallstom (communications) - the group also includes British ex-commissioner Chris Patten, former French foreign minister Michel Barnier, ex-German justice minister Otto Schily, former prime ministers Paavo Lipponen and Wim Kok of Finland and the Netherlands.
The group represents the first public attempt at resuscitating the document which has been languishing in the political hinterlands since it was rejected last year by French and Dutch voters.
It is also an acknowledgement that nothing can be done at governmental level until the French elections early next year are over and done with.
Since the shock votes in mid 2005, the EU has not found the political will to tackle the constitutional question - with member states in June finding it politically expedient to instead prolong the 'period of reflection' about what to do about the constitution.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso put the issue back on the political table earlier this week by saying that there will be no further enlargement until there is an institutional settlement.
Romania and Bulgaria joining in January and bringing the number of member states to 27, the power-sharing limit foreseen under the current framework - the Nice Treaty - will only serve to make the issue more pressing.
This is particularly the case for countries that support further enlargement to take on Croatia, such as Germany.
Berlin takes over the EU presidency in January and supports a revival of the EU constitution but has so far been lukewarm about the proposals being touted in some capitals.
Last week, chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that she did not want to pick out parts of the document, appearing to reject ideas by French centre-right presidential contender Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian prime minister Romano Prodi.
The 'mini-treaty' idea had found favour in some quarters because it could get around a major political stumbling bloc in that it may only need to be approved by national parliaments, sidestepping unpredictable French voters.
However, Mrs Merkel also re-opened a can of political worms by resurrecting the idea that there should be a reference to God in the constitution.
The 'God debate' during original negotiations on the EU charter was long and bitter with the document eventually emerging without a reference to Christianity.
Berlin's position has left some analysts wondering whether it is possible to keep the whole document alive as well as reopening difficult issues like the religious heritage question.