Germany's EU constitutional task increasingly difficult
By Honor Mahony
As the half-way mark of the German presidency looms, even the most basic parameter-setting agreement on the EU constitution looks difficult as France is politically absent, the UK is opposed to a substantial text and Poland is taking a tough man stance.
Germany is currently conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations with the 26 other member states on the EU constitution, which is to culminate in June with a roadmap for eventual adoption of a new document.
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But basic fundamental differences over what shape and form the new treaty should take as well as the unclear domestic situations in key countries are making Germany's stated aim more difficult.
France as a major player is facing presidential elections at a key time in the negotiations, with the first round to take place on 22 April followed by the second round on 6 May. Parliamentary elections will take place on 10 June.
The current two frontrunners in the presidential race - Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Segolene Royal on the left - have widely differing views on how to proceed with negotiations.
Mr Sarkozy would like to streamline the treaty and see it ratified only through national parliaments. Ms Royal, on the other hand, has pledged to put it to a referendum again and called for more 'social Europe' to be in the text.
Other countries are unlikely to put their negotiating cards on the table "as long as they don't know what's going on in France," notes Katinka Barysch from the London-based Centre for European Reform.
Guillaume Durand, from the European Policy Centre in Brussels, meanwhile points out that even if Mr Sarkozy wins the election – he is currently leading in the polls - he will not necessarily get a majority in the national assembly, narrowing his room for political manoeuvre.
Ms Royal's promise to have another referendum in France on the constitution is also seen as crucial as it will force others to follow suit.
"The dynamics will change fundamentally" if Segolene Royal gets in, says Ms Barysch questioning whether it would be worthwhile to have substantial negotiations on the treaty if it is simply going to go on a similar path to 2005 when it was rejected by French and Dutch voters.
Brown and Blair
The British situation is also difficult for Germany.
London wants a small and technical treaty as possible to avoid a referendum and get the whole issue out of the way as soon as possible so that the Europe question does not dog national elections due in 2009.
Ms Barysch points out the British "are in a very strong position" because they don't need "friends" to take the unilateral step of vetoing the negotiations – with the Sarkozy idea of a mini treaty also seen as too much for integration-wary Britain.
On top of this, current prime minister Tony Blair is set to negotiate for his country in June but likely to exit the premiership soon afterwards in favour of the unknown quantity – as far as Europe is concerned - chancellor Gordon Brown.
The June summit "probably won't have the right people around the table and they won't be prepared enough," says Mr Durand referring to the British and French situations.
Sounds from other parts of Europe have also not been particularly encouraging for Germany. Italy is set to be distracted in the coming weeks following the sudden resignation of leader Romano Prodi while Warsaw has been shouting ever more loudly about what it will and will not accept in any future text.
Experts see both Poland and the Czech Republic, both integration-sceptic - as "unknown" on the bargaining front as for most of the previous negotiations on the constitution, they had observer status as they were not yet full members.
As for Germany, although it has played down expectations of what it can achieve, it sees itself as the last hope of putting the EU on track for getting a constitution in 2009 when European elections take place.
Portugal and Slovenia, the next two presidencies, are unlikely to have the political weight to do the necessary head-bashing that is needed to get agreement.
However, a mere technical treaty "would feel like a defeat for the Germans ... like a victory of wideness over deepness" says Ms Barysch, referring to the feeling that an enlarged EU is no longer able to take decisions.
They will push for "some parameters" she adds. However, others are not even sure they will manage that. Sara Hagemann from the Centre for European Policy Studies believes the June constitution statement will be "vague" and might be along the lines of member states committing themselves only to continue negotiations.