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EU: Italian Presidency Says Constitution Stands Or Falls With Voting Reform

EU foreign ministers who yesterday held a final formal round of constitutional talks before the bloc's summit this weekend failed to overcome divisions on voting reform. Spain and Poland, endowed with disproportionate voting strength under the Nice Treaty currently in force, have refused to accept a new, more balanced arrangement backed by Germany, France, and most other governments. Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister representing the EU's presidency, last night warned the entire constitutional project could founder on this single issue.

Brussels, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL)-- Summing up the state of play in the EU's constitutional talks yesterday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini appeared relatively upbeat.

He said significant progress had been made on 91 of the 92 issues raised by member state governments since early summer, when the broad-based Convention on the Future of Europe produced its draft constitution. The agreement meant to ensure the bloc can function smoothly after its eastern enlargement next May.

But the 92nd issue -� voting weights in decisions where national vetoes do not apply -- has real potential to scupper the entire enterprise.

Spain and Poland are eager to hold onto the voting arrangements spelled out in the 2000 Nice Treaty. That agreement gives Madrid and Warsaw nearly as many votes in EU decision-making as Berlin, although their populations are half the size of Germany's.

Without naming either Spain or Poland directly, Frattini warned that stubbornness over the voting-rights issue risks leaving the EU without a constitution.

He said a large number of member states share the view that there is no alternative to the principle of "double majority" proposed in the draft constitution. To be adopted by a "double majority," a proposal would have to be supported by 50 percent of the member states representing at least 60 percent of the EU population.

Frattini said he, as well as others, considers the change sufficiently fundamental to stake the future of the entire constitution on its success: "If there's opposition to the possibility of accepting the constitutional treaty, then, as I said, there's no alternative. For the Italian presidency, the decision is clear -- either a good constitution or no constitution at all. A shoddy constitutional treaty leaving all the issues unsolved is not an option for us."

Germany and France, which both would stand to gain from the double majority principle due to size of their populations, have indicated they will not back down. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has also hinted his country's commitment to underwriting costly EU development aid, of which Spain and Poland will be the main beneficiaries, could be reviewed.

Frattini also joined Paris and Berlin in rejecting the British compromise proposal to postpone voting reform until 2009.

Both Poland and Spain, on the other hand, have shown little sign of yielding, although analysts initially predicted they were simply angling for better deals in other areas.

Schroeder and Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski are meeting on 11 December to discuss the vote-weighting issue.

But Poland's minister for Europe, Danuta Huebner, yesterday reiterated that Warsaw is opposed to any change in the voting system. She said the weekend's EU summit in Brussels may end in failure if talks on the constitution are not successfully concluded on schedule:

"We still have hope. There are still some days before the summit this weekend. There is time to talk, I guess. We are optimistic, but we must talk, certainly," Huebner said.

The new member states appear to have scored a temporary victory over the EU's founding members who sought to downsize the European Commission in order to boost its effectiveness.

Yesterday, Frattini said most countries now accept that the new member states especially need individual commissioners with full voting rights to help them acclimatize and acquire a sense of ownership in the common institutions.

Hence, Frattini said, each country will initially have their own commissioner, although the situation will be reviewed later: "I've noted a pretty big consensus around the following hypothesis. It's this: there'll be a transitional period -- how should I call it -� there'll be a phase during which enlargement is being consolidated. During this phase, each country will have a commissioner. And there'll come a day -- that'll be defined in the constitutional treaty -- when we'll move forward. I have my preferences; other people have different views. Some people think, though, that we'll need a smaller commission which will be more effective."

Diplomats from some smaller new member states yesterday indicated they could agree to reverting to a smaller commission at a later stage, provided seats are rotated on an equal basis.

Italy also appears to have neutralized a late challenge brought by the EU's four non-aligned countries -- Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Ireland -- against a proposed collective defense clause.

Frattini said the clause will be reworded to keep the "principle of solidarity" in a way that does not conflict with the requirements for neutrality contained in the four countries' constitutions.

Frattini also said the principle of "structured cooperation" would remain, allowing those wishing to engage in closer defense integration to do so at their own pace.

He said the EU would also proceed with plans to set up its own military planning cell, although the new constitution will not address the issue specifically.

Compromises were emerging last night on a number of other previously contentious issues. Thus, a proposal is in the works allowing for treaty changes without the EU having to undergo the full process of ratification by each single member state. Instead, ratification would be necessary should any of the national parliaments object.

A number of the smallest member states, Estonia and Slovenia among them, were quietly celebrating a victory having virtually ensured the retention of their six seats in the European Parliament instead of the proposed minimum of four.

Also, the functions of the future EU foreign minister are taking clearer shape. Although the minister will answer to both the European Commission and the member states, the latter appear to have the upper hand in dictating his or her terms of office.

Finally, it appears likely that member states will not be forced to give up veto rights in areas such as foreign policy and taxation.