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Last Updated: Friday, 17 June, 2005, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Treaty woes thwart EU ambitions
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News website, Brussels

French President Jacques Chirac (left) with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (centre) and Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn
Mr Chirac (left) is resisting pressure to reform EU aid for farmers
Is the constitution dead? Can it be resurrected? And what precisely is the plan that European leaders have apparently agreed?

Nobody here seems to agree.

The Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the EU Council of Ministers, says the constitution is very much alive.

His vision, which he presented as a joint decision on Thursday night, is that ratification will continue, albeit at a slower pace, once each country has persuaded its voters that the constitution is a good thing.

The treaty will not be renegotiated, he says. The existing text is the one that will one day become law.

A number of countries are happy with this, but others are not.

Sweden says it will not ratify the constitution unless France and the Netherlands, which rejected the constitution in referendums in recent weeks, are prepared to vote again.

UK wants rethink

The UK is, if anything, even more convinced that the existing text of the constitution is consigned to the dustbin of history.

Sweden Prime Minister Goran Persson
Without this constitution the union is in total crisis
Goran Persson
Swedish Prime Minister

It wants to use the period of reflection that will now begin as an opportunity to ask big questions about Europe's future direction and "to build a reformed Europe".

Officials seem bemused by the continuing faith some countries have in the constitution's future.

"There are still countries that are coming to terms with the decisions reached," says the UK's Europe Minister Douglas Alexander - referring to the referendums in France and the Netherlands.

The other countries now expected to delay ratification - the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Portugal - are split along broadly similar lines:

  • Denmark has said it is not clear now whether the treaty on the table is the definitive text, and that it is therefore unfair to ask people to vote on it.

  • A Finnish official said his country was ready to continue parliamentary ratification, after holding a dialogue with voters, but that it would be important to hear from France and the Netherlands how they planned to proceed.

  • Ireland and Portugal, on the other hand, remain keen supporters of the constitution and simply aim to use the extra time to convince voters to say "Yes" in referendums.

  • The Czech Prime Minister, Jiri Paroubek, is also a supporter of the constitution, and is keen to put it to a vote in due course, though he has a number of obstacles to overcome, including passing a law on referendums.

The French and Dutch reactions will be crucial in determining whether the constitution ever comes back from the dead.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has said the Netherlands will not vote again. Officials say that, in their view, the constitution is finished.

But there is a widespread assumption that the question will be left to the future leaders of these countries, with presidential elections due in France in 2007, and a Dutch government that may not last a full term.

"You cannot get over the French and Dutch problems while Chirac and Balkenende are still in government," says the leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, Graham Watson.

"But no one is excluding the possibility that future governments might try to hold a new vote."

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