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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
EU constitution - the last lap?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

This being Euroland, words do not always mean what they say.

Italian police patrol outside EU conference venue
The member states have limited room for manoeuvre
The Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) which EU heads of state and government opened in Rome on 4 October was not a one-off meeting. It is a process which will go on for weeks and probably months.

If all goes well, there should be an agreement on the new constitutional treaty by December, hopefully before Christmas. The six-month rotating presidency of the EU finishes at the end of the year. It is currently held by Italy, and the Italians are keen for there to be a new Treaty of Rome.

If the work is incomplete, then it falls to the Irish and if the worst comes to the worst, the Dutch after that in July next year.

To reopen one part of the package will mean reopening all parts - that would mean regression rather than progression
John Palmer
European Policy Centre
But by next spring the 10 new member states will join and if the new document is not ready by then, they will have to come in on the basis of the existing rules and use voting systems drawn up some time ago but which are due to change under the new proposals. It would all be a bit messy.

The IGC will be negotiating on the basis of a draft treaty drawn up by a convention earlier this year. Foreign ministers will do most of the actual work.

Democratic legitimacy

Basically the constitution is a balance between those who wanted more integration and those who did not.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing
The convention achieved more than had been expected
Critics on one side say it does not go far enough - in having a common foreign policy and powers over taxation, for example. Critics on the other say it goes too far - more majority voting, for example.

According to one veteran EU watcher, John Palmer of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, the rate of progress will be become clearer by November. He expects that governments will quickly realize that there is "limited room for manoeuvre".

"The convention achieved a great deal more than anyone expected and was a more representative gathering that the IGC, since the national and European parliaments were represented," he said. "The democratic legitimacy of the convention will have its own force."

"A variety of governments would like to improve the package but these demands are contradictory and to reopen one part of the package will mean reopening all parts. That would mean regression rather than progression.

"Therefore the draft cannot be changed in a substantive way and governments should soon accept that. Something more or less like the draft will emerge."

Hard bargaining

Mr Palmer added that much depends on how far governments with complaints choose to take their demands. Among the changes sought are the following:

  • The Poles and the Spanish are unhappy with the proposed way of defining a "qualified majority". They feel they would lose out.

  • Many smaller states argue that plans to reduce the number of European commissioners with the power to vote would undermine their position. Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner said recently that there should be one commissioner per country. Czech President Vaclav Klaus is not even attending the opening session saying that the draft would lead to a "super-state" and that the time allowed (a morning) does not leave enough time for a proper discussion.

  • The British Government has its "red lines", mostly to do with keeping a veto in a number of areas including tax, social security and criminal law. There is also an issue over whether moves for an EU defence policy might affect Nato.

None of these issues should lead to a breakdown. The normal EU way is to accommodate demands either by meeting them, paying for them in some other way by other concessions or giving a country an opt-out. There will be no new opt-outs in this treaty so there will be hard bargaining.

British officials involved refuse to talk about anyone vetoing the package because at this stage it is normal for demands to be made. What can look problematic now can be solved later, they say. And they expect an agreement.

Italian expectations

Others, led by a powerful combination of France, Germany and Italy say that there should not be much, if any, unpicking.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said recently that "whoever opens it must close it again".

But the fact is that the Italians are expecting lengthy talks. They have split up the issues into eight parts, the names of which indicate where the problems are. They include the council president, the minister for foreign affairs, defence, the commission and qualified majority voting.

There will be an important meeting in Rome at the end of November called a Conclave.

By then we should know how long this will all take.

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