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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 09:45 GMT 10:45 UK
Constitution spaghetti gets tangled
Angus Roxburgh
By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online, Brussels

Another round of the EU's Intergovernmental Conference, aimed at finalising a Constitutional Treaty for the enlarged union of 25 or more members, has been held in Brussels.

"Conference" is an odd term for what is going on. The word normally implies a meeting of perhaps a day or two, with a hall full of participants, speakers at a podium, Powerpoint slides, and lengthy presentations.

European flags flapping at European Commission
Sleepless nights of negotiation are likely before a deal is reached
The IGC is different. It was launched earlier this month in Rome with a one-day meeting of heads of state and government.

This week it resumed on Monday in Luxembourg at foreign minister level, then continued on Thursday when prime ministers got together for a morning of talks before the start of a regular EU summit in Brussels.

It will continue intermittently until - if the Italian presidency of the EU can pull it off - the middle of December, when a mother of EU summits will hammer out the final details, doubtless over several sleepless nights.

Troublesome partners

In between the high-level meetings, negotiations continue among EU ambassadors. And the Italians plan to hold a series of bilateral meetings with troublesome countries over the next weeks to try to smooth out the points of conflict.

By the end of November, everybody will be clear what the presidency's ideas will be going into the final round - we'll come up with final proposals based on all the work so far
Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini
High on the list of troublesome partners will be Spain and Poland, who are determined to keep the advantageous voting rights they obtained in the last IGC, enshrined in the Treaty of Nice.

The current IGC follows sixteen months of negotiations in a Constitutional Convention, under the chairmanship of the former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, involving more than a hundred representatives of EU governments, parliaments and other bodies.

The Convention produced a draft document which is now the basis of the IGC's deliberations.

And the greatest fear of the men and women who painstakingly drew up the draft is that the whole fabric will fall apart if people start tugging at different threads.

Or to put it in terms of the Italian presidency, you start twisting a bit of spaghetti on one side of the plate, and notice several other, apparently unconnected strands begin to squirm at the other side.

Linkages

And this is what is happening. One of the big bones of contention - the draft's proposal that Spain and Poland should lose their disproportionate influence - could be resolved, the two hint, if concessions are made elsewhere, either in the make-up of the Commission, or even in sheer monetary terms - farming subsidies or regional funds perhaps.

Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi
This dish is going to need more Parmesan
But if you start down that road then other countries will protest that they will lose out. One will demand an additional Commissioner, another some extra MEPs And so on, until the beautifully presented dish is a mess, which no amount of skilfully strewn parmesan can cover up.

The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on Thursday criticised countries which are determined to meddle with Giscard's draft. That's partly because he wants an easy life - and some prospect of tying up a deal by December.

But it's also because making linkages between quite separate elements of the Constitution package really does cause problems.

Almost everyone is at it, however - even those who pay lip-service to the draft and say they can accept it "in principle".

Pep talks

The European Commission, for instance, welcomes the draft - but its president, Romano Prodi, is unhappy with the proposal that not every member state should have a full, voting Commissioner.

MAJOR ARGUMENTS
EU defence
Role of foreign minister
Voting procedures
Extension of majority voting
Reference to God
Smaller countries, which see the Commission as giving them leverage in an EU in which large states dominate the intergovernmental meetings, agree, and argue for "one-country one-commissioner".

Mr Frattini and the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, hope that their pep talks with individual countries over the next month will yield fruit by the end of November, at which stage the foreign minister says "we should be ready for a final round of analysis".

It sounds like wishful thinking. There are many issues still being argued over, from EU defence to the role of the planned foreign minister, from voting procedures to the extension of qualified majority voting and the question of whether there should be a reference to God.

At least the Italians are promising one novelty in these matters - what Mr Frattini repeatedly referred to as "total openness" and "total transparency" in the work of the IGC. No more under-the-table, or behind-closed-doors deals, in other words.

We'll see about that.


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