EU leaders scrape treaty deal at 11th hour
By Honor Mahony
After a marathon round of talks, the EU has finally agreed the outline of a new treaty for the bloc with formal intergovernmental negotiations to start on 23 July.
At around 05:00 local time on Saturday morning - following a full day and a half of tense discussion - a triumphant Angela Merkel, German chancellor, announced to press that a deal had been struck and that Europe would be able to move out the "reflection" phase it has been in since the draft EU constitution was rejected two years ago.
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Under the plans, member states will use the mandate agreed at the summit as the basis for negotiations on a new treaty, which is to be done and dusted by the end of the year and ratified in all member states by mid-2009, ahead of the next European elections.
At this time, the EU will get a new foreign minister - or High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy as its now less-than-snappy title goes - and a permanent president as two of the most visible innovations click into place.
The negotiating base reflects the stringent political criteria EU leaders set themselves: it needs to produce a document that feels different to the constitution that was rejected two years ago in France and the Netherlands, but keeps the subtance of the original text already ratified by 18 countries. It also has to be a text that leaders can sell at home as being not worth putting to a referendum.
The result, full of compromises, opt-out opportunities and special texts for certain countries, is not going to give rise to a treaty that wins any beauty contests: easier-to-grasp names such as EU "laws" have been dropped in order to maintain the current "regulations" and "directives" seen as less symbolic of statehood; the flag, anthem, motto and name "constitution" fell by way of the same argument.
"Maybe it was not the most beautiful lyrics we have adopted," said European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, but it is "effcient prose," with the resulting "Reform Treaty" to be attached to two current treaties.
The headline-stealing issue of the summit was whether to change the EU voting system as demanded by Poland. Germany was steadfastly against the idea, believing the propsed double majority, population-oriented system is just and democratic.
In the end, after threats of launching treaty talks without Polish approval, they finally agreed that the current Nice treaty voting system continues until 2014.
From 2014-2017, a transistion phase kicks in where the new system - based on 55 percent member states and 65 percent population - applies, but the original sysyem under Nice can still be used to take decisions if a member state thinks it necessary. After 2017, only the new system applies. An easier threshold to delay a decision also kicks into place from 2014.
"The one who wins in these kinds of situations is the one with the strongest nerves," said Polish president Lech Kaczynski after the talks.
Elsewhere, the UK secured weaker language on foreign policy, made sure it could opt out of taking part in EU cooperation on police and judicial matters and secured what diplomats say is a "de facto" opt-out of a charter setting out the civil, social and economic rights of citizens.
The other two problem countries were the Netherlands, who managed to get national parliaments a greater say over proposed EU legislation as well as tougher criteria language on future would-be member states, and the Czech Republic which fought for, and got, language on clearer division of competencies between the EU and member states.
Meanwhile, France managed to get the phrase "undistorted competition" removed from being one of the objectives of the EU, with French voters thought largely to have voted against the constitution in May 2005 out of a fear that it would open the door to Anglo Saxon neo-liberalism.
Chopped and sliced though the old constitution is, "much of the substance has been maintained" according to chancellor Merkel.
Now EU leaders will return home to sell the result for domestic consumption, with next month's intergovernmental negotiations (IGC) to be stuff for technocrats and lower-level diplomats to deal with.
The next big issue, once the treaty is finally agreed, will be ratification and referendums. Both Denmark and Ireland are the two member states legally obliged to have referendums if their sovereignty is affected - the rest are likely to try to ratify via their national parliaments only.