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EU: Collapse Of Constitution Talks Could Lead To 'Two-Speed' Union

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The failure by EU leaders to adopt a new constitution in Brussels over the weekend could significantly alter the bloc's plans. While Poland and some other new member states celebrated the result as a victory for their sovereignty, Germany and France revealed plans to proceed with closer integration within a smaller group of like-minded countries.

Brussels, 15 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A number of factors contributed to the collapse of the EU's constitutional talks at the Brussels summit last weekend.

Many put the blame on lack of leadership by Italy, which currently holds the EU presidency, and the antics of the country's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

At the same time, the speed with which Germany and France announced they would forge ahead with integration in a "two-speed" Europe and their lukewarm interest in the talks suggest that they were prepared for failure. Poland's intransigence also played a major part.

Taking stock today, Reijo Kemppinen, a spokesman of European Commission President Romano Prodi, said it is "not useful" to blame any single member state. "It is clear that all member states bear collective responsibility for the failure," he said. "They should all now consider very seriously what is to be done next. It is clear that we need is time for reflection and [the] rethinking of some of the issues."

Berlusconi's handling of the negotiations by the bloc's outgoing Italian presidency was roundly condemned as dismal. Many diplomats pointed to his questionable humor, lack of seriousness, and the shoddy way the talks were led at all levels.

On Friday (12 December), he told EU colleagues that he would rather talk "women and football" than run constitution talks. The Italian prime minister made no secret of wanting to wrap up talks early to attend a football match in Tokyo on Sunday (14 December) morning pitting the team he owns, AC Milan, against the Argentinian champions.

Apart from ill-conceived jokes, the Italians seemed unprepared when it came to the actual talks. For instance, one EU official said Italian diplomats did not even take notes at half of the 24 bilateral meetings held by Berlusconi

However, it is unlikely that better leadership would have changed the outcome. Diplomats say neither France nor Germany made great efforts to assist Berlusconi in his mediating efforts. Both appeared ready to accept failure. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac were in fact said to have made the decision at a noon meeting on 13 December to end the summit prematurely.

Many observers suggest France is particularly disenchanted with enlargement, fearing it will irreparably damage the drive toward greater EU integration. In the months preceding the summit, the apparent rapprochement between Paris and Berlin was accompanied by repeated warnings to new member states that resistance to greater political integration could force the two countries to undertake closer cooperation outside EU structures.

That Germany and France may have planned for failure is suggested by the fact that they unveiled plans to forge ahead with a "core group" as soon as news broke that the summit had collapsed. The idea was apparently already discussed at a dinner on Friday night involving Schroeder, Chirac, and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

Chirac said after the summit that a "pioneer group" of countries could act as the "engine" of further integration and set an example for others. Schroeder said a "core Europe" would be a "logical consequence" of the failure of the constitution talks.

Kemppinen today said European Commission President Prodi thinks closer cooperation among some countries might be a way out of the current crisis. "What is naturally clear and self-evident, as we have said, is that now we have to work very strongly in order to try to bring countries round the table and to see if and when these negotiations could be concluded," Kemppinen said. "The president, however, thinks that since we have seen in the past history of European construction moments that are divisive, moments that are very difficult and sensitive where a group of countries has shown the way [forward] for the others, it is quite possible that today we are facing a similar time and this reflection of a core group should be taken up very courageously."

The key question here is whether this closer group would be set up within the present treaty structure. The EU's Nice Treaty allows for "enhanced cooperation" if at least eight countries join. It expressly excludes core groups on defense.

Given that defense is one of the key concerns for France and Germany, there is considerable speculation that the "core group," although based on present EU legislation, might take its cooperation outside EU structures. Apart from the EU's six founding members (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), Greece and Hungary were also said to have expressed interest. It is likely that if set up, the group would initially strive to implement some of the changes contained in the draft constitution.

In substantive terms, Poland may have contributed most to the failure of the summit. Warsaw appears to have misinterpreted the nature of the debate over voting strength, casting it as a power struggle between the larger and smaller countries.

However, EU officials say Germany was offered an increase of voting power under the existing Nice rules at the summit, but Berlin rejected the offer making it clear it was looking for voting reform to radically ease joint EU decision making. Diplomats say Germany had made one last effort on 13 December, suggesting that voting reform be introduced only in 2014. Poland rejected the offer. One official said there was a feeling Warsaw could have been angling for a financial "sweetener," but this time Germany's "checkbook remained in the pocket."

Schroeder was quick on 13 December to downplay suggestions of a rift with Poland, saying bilateral ties remain unaffected. Engaging Poland is a key German interest, and Poland's location and size would seem to guarantee it a certain influence even if it is to stay out of closer integration. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia are also unlikely to be completely sidelined, being sufficiently close to the EU's core member states.

The summit collapse is likely to have a direct impact on future budget talks. The EU is due to start preparations for the 2007-13 budget cycle early next year. Germany, which already suffers from a serious budget deficit and is in the throes of implementing difficult structural reforms, has indicated it wants to cut costs. The present spat with Poland will contribute to Germany's unwillingness to bankroll new member states at desired levels.

At this stage, no one appears to know when and under what circumstances constitutional talks could be revived. Kemppinen said EU leaders will return to this question in the spring. "We all know it is probably very difficult to relaunch the negotiations immediately," he said. "The forthcoming Irish presidency has said that they will report on the state of play to the spring European Council [EU summit in March]. We also know that we're facing European Parliament elections, and elections in Spain. So, I think it would be -- at this stage -- not necessarily possible to conclude the negotiations during the Irish presidency [concluding in June]."

France, especially, has made it clear it is no hurry to attempt a constitutional solution. It has indicated negotiations should not be relaunched before late next year, if not later.
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