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EU: Redistribution Of Voting Power Key To Constitution Talks

Today marks the opener in Brussels of a historic EU summit intended to provide the bloc with its first-ever constitution. However, the success of the summit is far from certain, with Germany and France threatening to block the constitution if Spain and Poland do not agree to cuts in their voting power.

Brussels, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The escalating controversy over EU voting power goes straight to the heart of European integration.

From one perspective, what is at stake is the status of Spain and Poland as first-rank EU powers. The Nice Treaty gives both 27 votes, on a par with Italy, France, and Britain, and only second to Germany with its 29 votes.

Yet both Spain and Poland have scarcely 40 million inhabitants, while Italy, Britain, and France have each approximately 60 million and Germany more than 80 million.

Both Poland and Spain argue their relative advantage is necessary to balance the power of larger countries. Poland's government this week suggested it stands for the interests of all the smaller member states.

Germany and France, on the other hand, say there is only one way to ensure the smooth functioning of the EU after enlargement -- that is, to reform the system of decision-making by qualified majority, of which the struggle over voting power is a part.

Hence both Berlin and Paris support a proposal under which majority decisions need the support of 50 percent of the member states representing 60 percent of the EU's total population.

The proposal takes greater account of the size of the larger countries, but also makes blocking joint decisions harder.

Both Germany and France have said they would rather go without a constitution than keep the Nice voting system.

The EU's Italian presidency has adopted a similar position.

Yesterday, Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission and a leading integrationist, also said he does not want a constitution adopted "at any price."

"This European Council [summit] has full political responsibility for the future of European integration, and it is therefore essential that this European Council should reach conclusions which are strong and important. They need to find a compromise and a good, balanced text, a text which matches the ambitions that all of us have regarding what kind of European Constitution we want. We certainly cannot run the risk of concluding the process just for the sake of concluding with insufficient compromises," Prodi said.

Prodi yesterday appeared to say he believes a delayed introduction of the new system could present a way out of the current impasse.

Many observers in Brussels expect Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to suggest the Nice rules should stay in place until at least 2014.

However, both Germany and France have indicated they consider such a solution unsatisfactory. In any case, even if the new draft constitution -- with its so-called 50/60 majority threshold -- were to be introduced at the summit without changes, the new voting system would only take effect in late 2009.

Poland and Spain have indicated they could consider a change if the population threshold were increased to 66 percent instead of the proposed 60 percent. This would make blocking decisions considerably easier for both.

Again, this is unacceptable to Germany and France, as well as the majority of member states. The measure is seen as a step back from Nice, which sets a 62 percent population requirement.

Yesterday's meeting in Berlin between German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski brought no breakthrough.

Agencies quote Berlusconi as saying last night that a "miracle" is needed for the summit to succeed.

Commission President Prodi yesterday made one last, spirited appeal to Spain and Poland to transcend their national self-interest and accept that for the EU to evolve, decision-making must derive an increasing degree of legitimacy directly from its citizens.

For that to happen, Prodi said, member states must adjust their votes -- or "points," in his words -- to the size of their populations.

"It's a basic question of fairness, democracy, how institutions work. How can you explain a points-based system to European citizens? Try it, try to explain to citizens that the situation remains the same in a country whose population might rise by 10 million people: is that democracy? We have to cast aside individual national interests; this is a constitution to last for centuries based on general principles. That doesn't mean counting points, but setting basic criteria -- the number of states, majority of population," Prodi said.

Prodi acknowledged that the EU is not yet a "fully formed union" where such "double legitimacy" can function perfectly. He has long backed an even simpler double majority where decisions can be taken by 50 percent of the member states representing 50 percent of the EU population.

Prodi yesterday indicated that he takes seriously recent warnings that Germany, France, and others could start seeking closer integration and cooperation outside the enlarged EU should this weekend's summit end in a stalemate.