13th May 2021

Merkel vows to continue confidential EU constitution strategy

  • The constitution talks "cannot be done out in the open on the market square," said Ms Merkel (Photo: German EU presidency)

German leader Angela Merkel has said she will continue to apply her strategy of reviving the EU constitution by holding confidential talks with national officials, despite criticism that the strategy impedes democratic debate.

After an informal summit with EU leaders in Berlin on Sunday (25 March), Ms Merkel rejected criticism, predominantly from the Czech Republic, over the way she prepared the Berlin Declaration marking the 50th anniversary of the union - a method she wants to continue in the second half of the German EU presidency while seeking to lay the basis for a new EU treaty.

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The Merkel strategy consists of holding limited consultations with so-called sherpas - member states officials holding behind-closed-doors talks with the German EU presidency.

In the case of the Berlin declaration, national capitals had received the draft of the document only two days before adoption on Sunday, leading Mr Klaus to complain that "democratic debate is lacking."

Angry Czech officials in the run-up to the Berlin summit urged the German presidency to handle the forthcoming talks on the EU constitution differently - but Ms Merkel told journalists that she would continue her way of working.

"This is one of the things that cannot be done out in the open on the market square," she said about the constitution issue.

"What I want to avoid is that every time there is a draft document, and when one of the 27 [member states] makes a small amendment, there has to be a broad debate on every single little change, that it becomes a matter of prestige."

She said her way of dealing with the issue through diplomatic channels would also give the Czech republic an opportunity to defend its interests - "perhaps more successfully than when everything is in the newspapers the next day and the other countries say - the Czechs got three things and now we want three things too."

Meanwhile, the German chancellor confirmed that Berlin wants to break the EU's institutional deadlock, sparked by "no" votes against European constitution in France and the Netherlands in 2005. as quickly as possible.

She said a key EU leaders summit in June should concentrate on how it can be ensured that a revised version of the EU constitution will be ratified in time for the 2009 European elections.

"It's not just about running up a document saying at some stage we will ratify it," she said. "There were two failed referendums and we have to draw lessons from that."

"The real issue will be implementation. It is not good enough to have 27 signatories on a paper that cannot be implemented," the chancellor stated. "The June [summit] cannot completely solve this issue, but it can demonstrate that we have the will to achieve something before the European elections."

The German EU presidency favours a fast-track procedure which would see the Portuguese presidency in the second half of this year open and close a so-called Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) which would renegotiate the constitution. An early agreement would leave enough time for the ratification of the revised constitution before mid-2009.

But during a working lunch in Berlin on Sunday, it emerged that not all EU leaders agreed to this speedy timetable, with Polish president Lech Kaczynski saying after the meeting that that the 2009 deadline for ratification is "not realistic."

Alternative Berlin declaration

Meanwhile, eurosceptic and pro-democracy groups are gearing up to fight any rapid resurrection of the EU constitution without citizens having a say in it.

Jens-Peter Bonde, Danish eurosceptic member of the European Parliament, said he is setting up a cross-political group of MEPs who will call for referendums across the EU.

The group would include both supporters and opponents of the current EU constitution, uniting in their belief that the decision on treaty reform should be made by citizens. "We will call for referendums as soon as the result of the IGC is there," Mr Bonde said.

During the Berlin summit, a group of pro-democracy groups such as the EUDemocrats and the German-based "More Democracy" organised an alternative EU anniversary conference in a school in Berlin's Kreuzberg area, with Dutch socialist and British conservative eurosceptics participating in the event.

In an "Alternative Berlin Declaration," the conference called upon EU leaders to "respect the explicit 'no' to the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands."

"It was an expression of the alienation felt between voters and the political class and it was a vote for a Europe of the citizens. Angela Merkel's request to revive the EU constitution at the highest level and behind closed doors will not solve the crisis but intensify it," the declaration says.

"We demand for an open, democratic process – without artificial time-pressure – in which the citizens will have the decisive say about the future of Europe."

'Germany has not ratified'

Among the alternative conference's participants, there was also one German professor who reminded Ms Merkel that the EU constitution has not been fully ratified in Germany -despite Berlin's strong public backing for it.

Law professor Karl Albrecht Schachtschneider, himself a strong opponent of the constitution, in 2005 filed a lawsuit against the charter on behalf of German MP Peter Gauweiler before Germany's national constitutional court in Karlsruhe.

The court said last October it would not rule on whether the EU constitution was compatible with the German constitution until after a final decision had been taken on the overall fate of the document

This ruling has impeded German president Horst Koehler from signing the ratification bill which was passed by the German parliament, with the president's signature necessary for final ratification.

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