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EU: Incoming Irish Presidency Makes Constitution Talks A Cautious Priority

The European Union's incoming Irish presidency last night in Brussels laid out its priorities for the next six months. Despite the collapse of the bloc's constitution talks at the Brussels summit last weekend, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen said moves to get the constitution back on track will be his "number one" priority. He acknowledged, however, that it is unclear where, precisely, the talks stand at the close of the outgoing Italian presidency.

Brussels, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen last night faced up to the inevitable.

Regardless of the divisions among member states that led to the collapse of the Brussels summit last week, the constitutional process remains the bloc's preeminent challenge in the foreseeable future. How the process will continue, however, remains unclear.

Equally unclear is what precisely Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, managed to achieve in his parting flurry of bilateral talks, of which only partial records are said to exist.

Cowen was thus unable to detail how he will resume contact with other member states on the issue -� whether talks will proceed from the text produced in June by the Convention on the Future of Europe, or the amended text released by the Italian presidency after the Naples ministerial meeting in late November, or where the Brussels summit left off last weekend.

"We have two texts on the table, we have a number of discussions which have taken place since then, they do form part of what have turned out to be, thus far, incomplete negotiations. We will take detailed briefing -� or debriefing -� from the Italian presidency as soon as we take up the presidency in the new year, to glean from them their view of the situation. We obviously listened to what the Italian prime minister had to say at the lunch discussions [during the summit]. But the bottom line in relation to all of this is that we haven't reached a point of consensus yet and we need therefore to consult with all colleagues to listen to what their views are now on the aftermath of our failure to reach a consensus thus far," Cowen said.

Cowen said Ireland would first hold unofficial talks with other current and future member states, and then compile a report for the spring Brussels summit assessing the situation.

He ruled out the possibility of an immediate return to talks within the framework of the formal Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) for which last weekend's summit was the intended culmination. He said it is too early to say at this stage when the IGC would resume, or when it could conclude.

However, Cowen said he believes all 25 old and new member states are interested in a quick solution. He said everyone recognizes the absence of a constitution is harmful for the EU. "It is absolutely vital that we ensure that this union has the capacity to take effective decisions going forward," he said. "We all understand that's the overriding political imperative in all of this. And I think, therefore, it wouldn't be helpful if we were to suggest that this can be postponed indefinitely without it having an impact on how the union views itself and how the union is viewed by others looking in."

But other participants in the constitutional process are urging a slower approach. Among them is former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who headed the Convention on the Future of Europe. He told reporters that he did not expect negotiations to resume until late 2004 or early 2005, and said, "A precipitous move, instead of producing [agreement], would probably reinforce antagonisms, so it would be better to have a prudent, cautious approach."

But Cowen said Ireland is well placed to try and negotiate a solution, as it has "genuinely no national agenda." He said Dublin is equally ready to continue with the Nice voting arrangements, as demanded by Poland and Spain, or accept the "dual majority" system backed most strongly by Germany and France -� or even go along with a third option comprising any "reasonable" combination of the two.

Cowen appeared skeptical of the notion of a "core group" made up of a limited number of countries willing to pursue closer integration. The idea is supported by both France and Germany.

The Irish minister said this would not be the "optimal" solution. He added all 25 countries share that view, and supporters of a "two-speed" Europe would also prefer to pursue integration within an agreed constitutional framework.

Cowen said open and inclusive cooperation remains the only way for the EU to retain its cohesion and is also the key to the success that has been achieved by the bloc so far.

The next act in the drama is now likely to take place in March, when the Irish presidency will present its assessment to other EU leaders at the spring summit. Cowen said that should a convergence of views become evident, the Irish presidency will be ready to do everything to bring the talks to a swift conclusion.