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EU: IGC Meeting Shows Little Progress On Constitution

Three weeks after its opening ceremony in Rome, the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), bringing together EU member states to discuss the bloc's first-ever constitution, has made little progress. The relative lack of progress bears witness to deep disagreements among member states on key issues. However, most observers have long noted that intergovernmental talks in the EU seem fated to end in drawn-out final summits where eventual deals are thrashed out at the highest level.

Brussels, 28 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from various EU member states are grumbling that the bloc's Italian presidency seems unable to speed up the work of the current Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). At the same time, no one appears to want to put all their cards on the table before anyone else.

The talks between the 25 foreign ministers of current and future EU governments that took place in Brussels yesterday were another installment in the tortuous progress of forging a first-ever European Union constitution. No decisions were expected and none were reached.

But gradually, national positions have emerged and the Italian presidency is now proposing to release an overall, comprehensive draft text of the constitution by late November. Foreign ministers will then meet 27-28 November in the Italian city of Naples, where most of the text -- in theory, at least -- should be approved. On 12-13 December, an EU summit is to put the finishing touches on the final document.

Yesterday's talks involved what the Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described as "the most significant and delicate issue" in the debate -- the revamped EU presidency.

All member states accept that the current six-month rotation must go. It will be replaced with a system where each of the "sectoral" ministerial councils -- dealing with agriculture, transport or environment, for example -- gets its own rotating "team presidency." Most popular options are said to range from three-five countries per team, running the given council for 18-24 months.

Frattini said last night "practically everyone" had agreed with the general principle. "Now, there is a fairly general consensus on the rotation issue. Many feel that the principles should be enshrined in the [constitutional] treaty. And that these principles must be very firmly held. There should be equal access, parity of access to the presidency, there should be equal rotation, which should be basically equal rotation among all member states, big and small, old, and new. There should also be some consideration of the geographical balance in each team presidency, and it should be a system which would make the whole procedure functional," Frattini said.

Frattini said the "practical implementation" of the system -- deciding which countries participate in which presidencies -- is likely to be determined by EU summits. He said the decision should be made by a majority of member states -- that is, not be subject to national vetoes.

The one council that is likely to be left outside of the rotational system is the one that brings together the foreign ministers themselves. There is no consensus as to who should chair it. Some consider it a job for the new EU foreign minister, whose job will be created by the new constitution. Others say this depends on how precisely the new official will divide his work between EU member states and the European Commission.

The other main topic yesterday had to do with the future scope of national sovereignty -- whether and where to extend the scope of "qualified majority voting" (QMV), in other words, decision-making that does not require unanimity among all member states.

Frattini said there appears to exist a "balance" among the member states in favor of curtailing veto rights and those supporting extending them. He outlined the main areas of difficulty for those wanting to extend QMV.

"For example, on taxation, many states have said they need unanimity, [as well as] on criminal law -- European criminal law. Some states have said: 'Well, we find it a bit difficult to accept qualified majority voting here, because we have very different criminal law systems from the others. We have common law systems which are very different, for example, from the systems in countries where there is a criminal code which is followed.' So there are certain areas where there are clearly some difficulties," Frattini said.

Foreign policy and defense are other areas where there is still little consensus. But like taxation, social policy, and criminal law, they too are unlikely to see the removal of veto rights any time soon -- because the decision to remove them, when made, must be unanimous.

At lunch, the foreign ministers briefly touched on another sensitive issue -- the revision of the future treaty. Frattini said a number of member states had been very concerned about the possibility that the treaty could amended without the double approval of all member state governments and parliaments. But, he noted, this would lead to a situation where any amendment could in future be blocked by just one government or parliament. He suggested amendments in the institutional parts could remain subject to unanimity, whereas others could be simpler to amend.

A number of "non-institutional" issues were also discussed. Leading among them was the question whether Europe's "Christian heritage" should be explicitly mentioned in the preamble of the constitution. Frattini said a "growing number" of member states favor this -- some analysts say they number seven in total -- whereas some, like France and Belgium, remain categorically opposed.

One key issue which will probably be left unresolved until the summit in December is the insistence of Spain and Poland on keeping the Nice treaty rules for QMV decisions, which accord both equal voting leverage with EU heavyweights Britain, Italy and France. All three have roughly 60 million inhabitants, whereas Spain and Poland barely reach 40 million.

This is an issue that goes to the heart of attempts to endow the EU with greater democratic legitimacy beyond its member states. The current draft constitution extends the importance of the "demographic component" -- the role the weight of the combined EU population plays in QMV decisions. When Spain and Poland drop their objections to the new plans -- as is likely -- they will do it for concrete concessions, possibly giving them a greater chance to continue blocking decisions in future.

Among the nearly 100 "non-institutional" issues raised by different member states, Frattini said, Hungary's bid to include a reference to the need to protect ethnic minorities in the "values" part of the constitution received some favorable attention.

"Yes, this subject will certainly be discussed, not just with Hungary. Indeed, it was discussed today. I don't think I'll be revealing any secrets if I tell you this: there were a number of countries who explicitly intervened to support the idea. I can mention Italy and Austria here, who supported the idea," Frattini said. "In today's meeting I didn't hear anyone speaking against [it], in today's session. However, I have to be honest and fair, in the written answers to the questionnaire [circulated by the Italian presidency to establish member states' positions on concrete issues], there were a number of member states who were negative about this idea of including a reference to the protection of minorities."

However, the proposal is unlikely to pass the acid test of commanding majority support to be kept on board by the Italian presidency when it draws up its final draft. A number of member states, old and new alike, are known to fear it could encourage separatist tendencies within their own borders.