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EU: Union Teeters On Brink Of Crisis After Constitution Setbacks

Divisions are becoming apparent among EU member states and even within the European Commission over whether proceeding with the ratification of the European constitution after failed referendums in France and the Netherlands is a good idea. Officially, Brussels calls for calm until the EU summit on 16-17 June, but Britain and a number of EU commissioners are increasingly questioning if trying to keep the constitution afloat will not lead to further damage to the bloc. Meanwhile, another setback looms as the member states appear increasingly unlikely to agree on a new budget for the years 2007-13 at the Brussels summit.

Brussels, 3 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Cracks are becoming apparent in what top EU leaders had been hoping was going to be a united front in the run-up to the EU summit on 16-17 June.

Despite calls by Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg and current EU chair, to defer decisions until the summit, member states and even EU commissioners are breaking rank.

Both Barroso and Juncker hope ratification will continue despite the rejections in France and the Netherlands. However, Britain is known to be lobbying for the treaty to be put on ice, drawing sympathy from member states facing their own referendums.

Also, EU sources told RFE/RL this week a heated debate took place at a European Commission meeting on 1 June. The British commissioner Peter Mandelson and Guenter Verheugen, a German, had called for a “pause,” arguing further failures in the ratification process could damage economic reforms within the EU.

Francoise Le Bail, a commission spokeswoman, said today Barroso had not changed his mind and that it had been “natural” to debate the issue.
Germany is spearheading efforts to save the constitution, but suffered a setback when it failed to convince the five other EU founder members to gather for an emergency summit.

“President Barroso has not changed his mind. President Barroso took part [in] and encouraged a discussion round the table of the commission meeting. It would have been extremely strange if the commission -- after the referendum in France and just before the referendum in the Netherlands [ended], where the [negative predictions of the] polls were already very well known – if the commission had had a meeting without discussing what [are] really the main political issues of the moment in Europe,” Le Bail said.

Germany is spearheading efforts to save the constitution, but suffered a setback when it failed to convince the five other EU founder members to gather for an emergency summit. The German initiative was reportedly rejected by the Netherlands.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende told his country’s parliament yesterday that instead of setting itself lofty goals, the EU must now think of how it “can bring Europe closer to the people.” Bernard Bot, the Dutch foreign minister, also indicated the Netherlands will come to the summit on 16-17 June with the message that the EU should scale back its ambition.

The Netherlands will be a key player in the planned debate of the EU’s next seven-year budget at the summit.

Reuters reported that Juncker, who chaired the EU finance ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg today, warned that failure to agree on the budget at the summit would turn the current “big European difficulties into a big European crisis.”

However, chances of a deal appear minuscule. With elections looming in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will not be in a position to relent in his demand -- backed by the Netherlands and four other member states – that the budget be capped at 1 percent of the EU national gross income.

The European Commission has asked for 1.14 percent and says any less would mean essential EU functions -- among them external relations -- would suffer.

Yesterday, the Luxembourg presidency presented its latest compromise, which limits the budget to 1.056 percent. The commission called the offer “disappointing,” but spokeswoman Le Bail promised “constructive” collaboration. “Indeed, in these negotiations, the commission is prepared to play a constructive role, and the commission believes it is important to come to an agreement at the European Council [that is, the summit] in June,” she said.

However, most officials suggest the constitutional crisis has effectively removed what little chance there had been earlier of a decision on the prospective budget in June.