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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 20:00 GMT 21:00 UK
Analysis: EU constitution creeps closer

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

EU member flags
The summit has an ambitious and far-reaching agenda

The European Union summit this Thursday and Friday at a resort near the Greek city of Thessaloniki will mark an important stage towards the adoption of a European constitution.

However, there are fears among supporters of greater integration that the draft text - hammered out in a broadly-based convention over the past 16 months - will be picked at by numerous governments unhappy about one piece of it or another.

This process could begin at the summit.

For the federalists, the draft treaty is disappointing enough. They do not want it to be further weakened.

'Important failings'

John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, told BBC News Online: "I worry that when the intergovernmental conference on the treaty starts in October, some governments with sticky fingers will put their hands into the jam pot and pull bits out."

Thursday opening session - illegal immigration, external borders
Thursday dinner - Middle East, Iraq, international terror, WMDs
Friday morning- European constitution
Friday lunch/pm - EU-US ties, European security strategy
Friday night - talks with Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey
Saturday - Summit with Balkans leaders

"The draft achieved more than expected, given the small 'c' conservative nature of governments," he said.

"There is more clarity, more majority voting, a charter of rights and the inclusion of home and justice issues in the EU.

"There are important failings, especially on the lack of majority voting over economic issues and foreign policy and the text is behind the curve of where the EU needs to be.

"But the convention members will not want any major changes and are saying hands-off our text," he added.

Broad consensus

The draft will be presented to the summit on Friday by the president of the convention, the former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The summit will be an indication as to how far the draft [constitution] commands general support at the highest level or whether the IGC will develop into a political battle
He has surprised many observers by getting a broad consensus for the document, which has achieved a compromise between caution and ambition.

The summit is likely to set a date, probably in September or October, for the start of the intergovernmental conference (IGC), which is a process, not a one-off meeting.

The process should culminate in agreement early next year in time for the arrival of 10 new member states in May.

Already a number of governments and political parties have put down markers.

The Spanish and Polish do not like a new system of qualified majority voting, for example, which would weaken their power.

The British Government objects in turn to a clause which would allow heads of state and government to decide new areas for majority voting without a further treaty change.

Eurosceptics in Denmark hope to prevent adoption of the treaty in a referendum by saying that it goes too far towards integration.

Some Catholic countries, Malta among them, want a specific reference to Christianity as part of Europe's heritage in the treaty's preamble.

Immigration debate

Many others have their own objections.

Asylum seekers
Immigration and asylum will also be hot topics

However, at this stage, it does not look as if there is anything major enough halt the whole project.

The summit will be an indication as to how far the draft commands general support at the highest level or whether the IGC will develop into a political battle.

Apart from topical discussions on Iraq and relations with the United States, and consideration of a report on greater cooperation on security, there will be a specific debate on ideas to tighten up on illegal immigration.

Now that the British Government has abandoned its call for camps to be set in remote areas where applicants for asylum can be processed, the concept of "zones of protection" has come to the fore.

Under this idea, if there was an area of conflict, a nearby zone would be declared in which refugees would be given protection and their claims considered.

But there is opposition from human rights groups.

Majella Anning, spokesperson for Amnesty International in Brussels, said there were too many uncertainties.

"What status would these people have? What standards would be applied. Would they be detained? And where would the zones be?" she asks.

"This is all part of the ad hoc EU policy of simply trying to keep people out."

A Foreign Office spokesman in London described the idea as a sensible one which was being discussed as some member states had objected to the camps.

Further enlargement?

A third important part of the summit comes on Saturday after the EU meeting itself.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey will be the centre of the next big EU debate

At that stage, leaders of Balkan countries will join in.

The EU is likely to reaffirm its commitment to allowing them to join.

No date will be set, though most people talk about the end of the decade.

They will be told that membership will not be automatic but will be tied to democratic development.

Chris Patten, the external relations commissioner said: "The prospect of membership is real but must be earned. It will take sheer hard work and political will."

The prospect is opening up, however, of a further enlargement of the EU to take in another six countries.

And after that will come debate about Turkey.

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