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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 14:03 GMT
Calm summit before the storm
Mark Mardell
By Mark Mardell
BBC Europe editor

After the excitement of some EU summits of recent years, full of name-calling, bitterness and last-minute break down, this was a calm and well mannered affair.

The Finns are coming to the end of their six months in the chair, and they were always after a placid end to a presidency which has hardly been distinguished by high-wire drama.

But the prime ministers and presidents of the European Union have calmly come to agreement on two important subjects, which will inevitably lead to blazing rows in the future.

These are, firstly, the constitution, and secondly how to take in new members - including a very big one, Turkey.

RETURN OF THE CONSTITUTION

Behind the bland words of a commitment to "the continuing reform process" lies a mounting excitement among many of Europe's leaders that parts of the constitution will be back very soon.

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he believed there would be "real, real progress" in the next six months.

Tony Blair at EU summit
Tony Blair will want as slim a treaty as possible
The Finnish prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, revealed that, despite the EU's new commitment to greater transparency and engagement with the public, he'd held secret talks with all the leaders of the EU's 25 countries about what they thought should be done with the constitution.

In the jargon these are called "confessionals": the idea is that, assured of privacy, the prime ministers and presidents will unbutton and reveal their secret hopes and fears.

European Union politics is too much like poker for that to really be true, but the Finns claim to have found common ground.

Mr Vanhanen revealed that all governments agreed that the EU needs rule changes and there would have to be a new treaty.

He said they all felt that after the years of work on the European constitution there's no point in starting from scratch. And crucially he added that "most" countries wanted to retain as much of the substance of the constitution as possible.

France and Germany, are mustard keen on stuffing as much of the text of the old constitution into the new treaty
This will be the nub of the argument next year. Tony Blair, or indeed Gordon Brown, will not be in the latter camp. They will wants as trim and slim a treaty as possible.

Anything that smells vaguely like the constitution will inevitably trigger demands for a new referendum. Mr Blair, or indeed his successor, will want something small and insignificant enough to given them a fighting chance of ignoring those calls.

Others, notably France and Germany, are mustard keen on stuffing as much of the text of the old constitution into the new treaty.

Britain has managed to rip the word "constitution" out of one key part of the painstakingly negotiated summit conclusions.

The commission and some countries are keen to get more co-operation on counter-terrorism measures by giving up their right to block proposals.

The original text stated that this idea, contained in the constitution, was the best way forward. That has now gone, although the idea itself may be back at some stage.

HOW TO GET BIGGER

The second agreement which will lead to future rows is hugely significant, and played down by everybody here, particularly the British.

The leaders spent most of their time talking about how big Europe should get, and how fast it should grow.

The leaders have in effect agreed to make it more difficult for countries to join in the future
In many ways the European Union is still reeling from the impact of 10 new countries joining two years ago. Many politicians and bureaucrats worry that a bigger EU will be a different and even more unwieldy organisation, and apparently many ordinary citizens of EU countries are none too keen on the immigration it brings in its wake.

So the leaders have in effect agreed to make it more difficult for countries to join in the future, while stressing that expansion is a good idea and should carry on.

Britain argues that no new obstacles have been placed in the way of continued expansion, but I am not so sure.

They have agreed to look at the impact the new country would make on the European Union, and the EU's ability to "absorb" it.

While they have only agreed to communicate better with the public, the Mr Barroso has said that democratic approval is also important.

What difference will this make?

Turkish dancers
Turkey was what this summit was all about
Consider this hypothetical situation. Imagine a new country wants to join and it is bigger than any existing country. So, in terms of votes and members of the European Parliament the new member would be the most powerful in the club.

Imagine that this country was also quite poor, and that its huge population would not only give it political power but would have implications for immigration that would make the British tabloids fears about Bulgaria and Romania pale into insignificance.

Imagine that many EU members and citizens are none too keen on this country because of deep historical, cultural and religious differences. And then think what any "impact assessment" might say about it joining.

You could easily think this hypothetical situation is dreamt up to show one extreme of the argument. But it is a precise description of Turkey, a largely Muslim country which, whenever it is ready to join, will have a larger population than any other country in the European Union.

It's true Mr Barroso went out of his way to stress that the EU was an "open house" and "we have clearly left the door open for Turkey".

It's true he said that it was the duty of politicians to stress the positive and not only listen to concerns.

But I have a feeling the argument about Turkey's failure to open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus will be as nothing compared to any assessment of its impact on the existing union.

Thanks to an agreement reached by foreign ministers on Monday, the word "Turkey" was not formally uttered at this summit. But that is what it was all about.




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