Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

British guns blazing as EU summit opens

  • It is going to be an evening of compromise, fudged language and face-saving deals (Photo: Tim M. Hoesmann)

British prime minister Tony Blair walked into the EU summit on Thursday (21 June) saying he must see "significant changes" in the draft EU treaty if there is to be any deal. The Polish president said nothing, amid speculation on the kind of compromise package Warsaw might accept.

"This is going to be a very tough negotiation. We've set out four areas on which we need to see significant change. We have to see that change," Mr Blair said. "Of course we want to see Europe working effectively, but on the four areas we've set out, we need to be satisfied."

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"We want a treaty but it has to be the right one," his foreign minister, Margaret Beckett, said.

The British demands are to weaken the mandate of a future EU "foreign minister;" to not give the Charter of Fundamental Rights legal force; to not give away the national veto on justice matters and to not give the "EU" a legal personality.

Speaking earlier at a socialist party congress in Brussels, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said "I've received a declaration from Tony Blair. It's a preparation for the British position at the council. I hope this is not the final position," with other EU states seeing the UK's "areas" as potential deal-breakers.

Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer underlined that "to have one person responsible for foreign policy is essential," adding that the EU's human rights-oriented foreign policy could become a laughing stock if the rights charter is stripped of force.

"Think of the American complaint, when they ask 'Who should we phone in Europe, if there is a foreign policy problem?'" the Austrian said. "Imagine us at the next summit with Russia, imagine that typical smile of Putin if Europe has not been able to adopt its own charter."

Polish silence

In contrast to Mr Blair, Polish president Lech Kaczynski strode into the EU headquarters in stony silence.

But at an earlier conservative parties' gathering near the EU capital, Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski faced strong hostility to Warsaw's plans, with Luxemburg's comment that Poland owed much of its EU membership to German support greeted with widespread applause.

Warsaw is pushing the EU to change its proposed new "double majority" voting system. The Poles want votes weighted in accordance to the square roots of populations, in a system said to be more democratic but also giving Poland more leverage against Germany.

Except the Czech Republic, none of the 26 other EU states sympathise with Poland's idea. On the eve of the summit, Prague also stated it would not back a Polish veto on the basis of the square root, with speculation growing in Brussels on what Poland might take home instead.

EU diplomats say the compromise package could involve more seats for Poland in the European Parliament and a stronger treaty clause on energy solidarity, with the new "double majority" voting system to kick in only after 2014.

A Czech idea to accommodate the Poles even further - by means of a "minority veto" giving Warsaw more blocking powers - is seen as more problematic, as it would break open the draft new treaty's intricate institutional balance.

Another potential troublemaker, the Netherlands' prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, said The Hague still had some "wishes."

Mr Balkenende is seen as being basically satisfied with the German treaty proposal, but is keen to impress on the home front by getting a stronger role for national parliaments and a clear mention of EU enlargement criteria in the new treaty text.

Too close to call

The summit has been billed by Germany as a historic make-or-break moment, with Mr Steinmeier saying "We cannot, I repeat we cannot fail. If we do fail to reform, to restructure the treaty, we would lose a whole era of European integration. We would induce a process of polarising the EU."

But appraising the chances of success, Brussels veteran and Luxembourg leader Jean-Claude Juncker gave the summit just a "50/50" chance, saying the British and Polish problems are "equally tough."

Commenting on potential face-saving deals for Warsaw, Danish leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen said "That's what it's like when people have crawled very high up in a tree, then they sometimes need help to get down with ladders and ropes and other instruments."

European Commission leader Jose Manuel Barroso was more gloomy. "Despite all our best efforts, it seems not all of our partners are ready for a real negotiation," he said, without naming names.

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