By Oana Lungescu
Several small countries in the European Union have challenged the way Italy intends to conduct the final negotiations on Europe's first ever constitution.
EU foreign ministers have had their first chance to debate the draft
Italy, the current holder of the EU presidency, wants to launch an inter-governmental conference of EU leaders in early October and conclude negotiations on the text by the end of the year.
But Finland, Austria and Lithuania said on Monday that the discussions were too important for them to commit to such a tight schedule.
At a televised public debate of EU foreign ministers, Finland said it needed more time to consult its parliament, which would need to ratify the final result.
Watch the UK argue to expand the president's role, while the smaller countries try to limit the powers as narrowly as possible
Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja said it was unacceptable to start the discussions so early.
His Austrian colleague Benita Ferrero-Waldner insisted that many sensitive questions had been left open, such as the role of smaller countries in a streamlined European Commission.
Italy's 'gentle violence'
And Lithuania's Antanas Valionis said that such important talks should take as long as was needed.
Smaller countries have been on the offensive for the past 16 months, as a convention representing parliaments and governments across Europe has drawn up the draft constitution.
They fear the document favours bigger nations in an enlarged EU, by proposing a long-term president of the European Council, an EU foreign minister, and a European Commission where only 15 members would have the right to vote.
Prime Minister Berlusconi, who took hold of the draft constitution last week, said he would display what he called "gentle violence" to ensure that the text would not be radically altered over the next months.
But, as this first debate has shown, the battle over Europe's first constitution may be long and hard.