22nd Mar 2018

Stakes high as EU tries to put 2005 referendums behind it

  • There's a 50/50 chance of the summit being a success, say some seasoned politicians (Photo: EUobserver)

EU leaders are gathering in Brussels today for the most significant test of the bloc since French and Dutch voters rejected the draft European Constitution two years ago.

If all goes to plan, they are to finally dust off the political fallout of this shock event by agreeing to negotiate a new treaty, but it is set to be a long and difficult meeting.

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Getting an agreement that all 27 member states can sign up to is going to require the ultimate in diplomacy and deal-brokering from Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel and her team.

They are faced with a fine balancing act. On one hand they want to preserve as much of the original constitution as possible - this is to be done by tying it in to existing treaties and calling it a "Reform Treaty." On the other, they need to make enough changes for the Dutch, particularly, to return to The Hague and say voters' concerns have been taken into account. Too many changes will prompt protest from the "already-ratified" camp - counting 18 member states.

The weeks running up to the summit have been characterised by the normal grandstanding that occurs before any status quo-changing deal that occurs in the union. But in addition, the German EU presidency has had to deal with two new factors - the unpredictability of Poland's position and last minute controversial demands by the British.

London caused consternation earlier this week by introducing new demands on common foreign and security policy including stripping power away from the proposed foreign minister and keeping the diplomatic service - supposed to back up the minister - to be made up of national officials and not EU officials.

While the British negotiating stance is generally seen as easier to read, Poland's has been less so. It announced it was ready to die for its preferred voting system - based on the square root of populations - introducing a new hardline rhetoric in the pre-treaty run-up.

"We are only demanding one thing, that we get back what was taken from us," Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said yesterday in an interview with Polish national radio that referred to WWII and highlighted the bilateral roots of the current German-Polish dispute.

"If Poland had not had to live through the years of 1939 to 1945, Poland would be today looking at the demographics of a country of 66 million," he said of the constitution's voting system, which has population as a determining factor.

Although Poland has been indicating a softening in its stance, the tone of such comments adds to the air of unpredictability on Warsaw's position, with the country only recently confirming which of the leading twins would be attending the summit. Lech Kaczynski, the president, is coming, reportedly the less hard-necked of the two.

Already, there are numerous plans being floated to buy off Poland on the voting issue including giving it more MEPs, putting an article on energy solidarity – a hobbyhorse of Warsaw's – and changing the rules on forming a blocking minority in the council.

Topics seen as the ones likely to cause most discussion are foreign policy issues; the rights charter, the voting issue; the division of power between member states and the union and the role of national parliaments.

The stakes

The stakes are high, but Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a veteran summit attendee, gives the meeting just a 50/50 chance of succeeding.

He told Die Welt newspaper that if Germany, as "not just any presidency," does not manage to get a deal then "it will be years before we pull ourselves together to take another shot at it."

There is general consensus that the EU cannot afford a high profile failure, following two years of soul-searching after the constitution was twice rejected.

Its credibility is seen as being at stake, as well as its future ability to get third countries to dance to its tune on issues that are important to it – such as the environment.

Less subtle threats about a failed summit are also being made. European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso indicated earlier this week that failure will likely mean less money from EU coffers flowing to Poland and other new member states, which are being difficult.

EU leaders will start their meeting early on Thursday evening. They ease into the summit by first discussing Malta and Cyprus' entry to the euro at 17:30 local time, along with European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet.

They will then have a meeting with the head of the European Parliament, Hans Gert Poettering, before sitting down to dinner at 19:00 "for an initial discussion" on the treaty.

Foreign ministers

Foreign ministers meanwhile will discuss the Western Balkans, EU-Africa relations and the bloc's relations with Brazil.

The summit will continue on Friday and delegations have already booked hotels into Saturday in expectation of lengthy negotiations.

If Germany does get its treaty mandate – which sets out the list of topics that may be opened from the original constitution – then the incoming EU presidency, Portugal, is expected to start formal intergovernmental negotiations in July, hoping to wrap the whole process up in late autumn.

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