/ 4 October 2003

EU leaders set to clash at constitution talks

European leaders are divided on several issues as they start 10 weeks of final negotiations on Saturday for the European Union’s first constitution, a blueprint meant to ready the bloc for expansion next year.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose country holds the EU presidency, has urged his colleagues to avoid a wholesale renegotiation of a constitutional text that has emerged from 18 months of preliminary negotiations.

That draft foresees an EU president, a foreign minister, a structured defence policy and provisions to make it more difficult to wield vetoes that cause bureaucratic gridlock. It calls for an EU executive of only 15 members, denying each state the automatic right to one European commissioner.

Austria, Finland, and those set to join the club next year — Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Malta and Lithuania — sent Berlusconi a letter on the eve of the summit demanding major revisions. The constitution, they said ”should respect the principles of equality” of EU nations large and small.

”We can’t reopen Pandora’s box,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Friday in reaction to the letter. ”We must say no to the seven countries that have asked Premier Berlusconi to reopen the debate on the draft’s fundamental points.”

The seven leaders seek to renegotiate majority voting rules, the role of EU leaders in union decision-making, the need to keep the EU presidency rotating among member states, the allocation of European Parliament seats and national votes in decision-making ministerial meeting.

These are very technical issues affecting national sovereignty, and the outcome will translate into how much power nations will wield in a more centrally run EU.

Berlusconi and Frattini, who will lead the final round of negotiations, seek a deal by mid-December, but the talks may well drag into 2004.

The 105-member European Convention under former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing finished the blueprint in July after 18 months of technical negotiations.

Divisions emerged ahead of the summit, hinting at difficult negotiations.

Germany, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium are generally happy with the draft, while Britain insists foreign issues, taxation, social security and defence matters remain subject to national vetoes.

Poland and Spain want to retain a complicated formula that allocates national votes in decision-making meetings while Germany and others seek a redistribution of votes to more closely reflect population figures.

Also, Poland, Spain and Italy want the constitution to refer to God and Judeo-Christian values as a vital part of European heritage.

Topping Saturday’s agenda were negotiations on the new job of an EU president and foreign minister. The draft text has left it to the foreign ministers to say what powers these two positions should wield.

The talks opening on Saturday mark the fourth time in a decade that EU states undertake a rewriting of the rule book. A final constitution must be ratified by all EU legislatures and the European Parliament if it is to take effect in 2005. — Sapa-AP