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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 May 2006, 21:38 GMT 22:38 UK
Commission re-opens constitution wound
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News website

First reactions to the European Commission's proposals for taking forward debate on the European constitution have been more negative than positive.

To supporters of the constitution it looked as though the project was being shelved, while opponents accused the Commission of trying to bring back a "rejected" document.

Some said one part of the Commission's proposal - abolishing the national veto in criminal and judicial policy - looked like introducing the constitution by the back door.

The truth is that two member states rejected it but a majority has approved it so if you ask them now they will not find a consensus
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso

Others said it was a case of "cherry-picking" bits out of the draft, which could fuel the argument that the constitution was not necessary.

The conflicting responses illustrated the huge divisions in Europe regarding the constitution - the same divisions that led the Commission to conclude that no progress can currently be made on the issue.

JOSE MANUEL BARROSO, EU COMMISSION PRESIDENT

"The truth is that two member states rejected it but a majority has approved it so if you ask them now they will not find a consensus," Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the BBC.

"The best thing, I believe, is to avoid paralysis, avoid being now blocked in a room just discussing about constitutional matters but to concentrate on what I call a Europe of results.

"A policy driven agenda where we can show in concrete terms what is the value added of Europe for citizens."

ANDREW DUFF MEP

Andrew Duff MEP, spokesman on constitutional matters for the Liberal group in the European Parliament, said the proposal for a political declaration, which would serve as a basis for reform of EU institutions at some point in the future was "too airy-fairy".

"The danger is that the project will be consigned to oblivion. If we delay too long we will see all sorts of excuses thrown up to discard the entire project.

"The Commission's job, classically, is to broker agreement in case of dispute and to reconcile quarrelling parties. It is not being sufficiently agile and pro-active to achieve fresh consensus."

He said the Commission should prepares a timetable to re-open debate on the draft constitution in 2007, so that changes could be made that would address the concerns of Dutch and French voters.

PHILIPPE MOREAU DEFARGES, IFRI

French academic Philippe Moreau Defarges, a euro-federalist, said the Commission's proposal was an "elegant way of burying the draft constitution, without saying so".

"The Commission thinks it's impossible to get ratification, and is putting the constitution on the back burner, saying, 'If we can come back to it in two or three years, we will,'" he said.

"It's realistic, but it lacks ambition, so of course I am disappointed. However, you could also say that it is the least bad course of action."

He added that the idea of concentrating for now on delivering results in areas that mattered to European citizens was based on the incorrect assumption that it would be easier to reach agreement in these areas than on institutional reform.

"There is a lot of disagreement inside the EU," he said.

NEIL O'BRIEN, OPEN EUROPE

Neil O'Brien of the UK's Eurosceptic Open Europe organisation said the Commission had set out an agenda which was about gaining even more powers for the EU over the coming months, and had "laid out a timetable for an attempt to bring back the rejected EU Constitution".

"Barroso is wrong to claim that people want more Europe. It shows how little they have learned form the overwhelming no votes last year," he said.

"People want more powers returned to the local level, not more decisions being taken by remote officials in Brussels.

"The EU entitlement card is just a very expensive propaganda stunt."

SEBASTIAN KURPAS, CENTRE FOR EUROPEAN POLICY STUDIES

Sebastian Kurpas of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels said that in his view one of the most important features of the constitution was its symbolic value, keeping alive the idea of political union.

He said the Commission's idea for a political declaration could serve as a temporary substitute.

"On a daily basis the European Union is running OK, its not a big explosive crisis but there is still a feeling that we do not know where we are going. The declaration could address this problem, fill the vacuum that the constitution has left."

He added that any hint of "cherry-picking" bits out of the constitution would alarm those countries that wanted to try to save it from death.

"It could lead people to say: 'Look at what you can do with the old treaties - we don't need a constitution."

SARAH SCHAEFER, THE FOREIGN POLICY CENTRE

Sarah Schaefer, Europe programme director for the London-based Foreign Policy Centre, said that almost any initiative on the constitution from the European Commission would be counter-productive in the current climate.

"The initiative has to come from the member states. It would better if the Commission left it for the German EU presidency to take up (in 2007).

"Eurosceptics will argue that Europe ignores the popular will and ploughs ahead regardless. This plays into their hands.

"People feel that the Commission is unstoppable."




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