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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 January 2007, 00:28 GMT
Europe's Yes camp hardens position
By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Madrid

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Czech President Vaclav Klaus
Angela Merkel wants to keep Europe pulling in the same direction
The rift between the countries that support the European Union's beleaguered constitution and those who want to scrap it seems to be deepening.

At a meeting in Madrid, the 18 countries that have ratified the treaty insisted it should remain the basis for any future agreement, despite the fact that it was rejected by French and Dutch voters.

Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, aims to find consensus among all 27 members of the bloc by June.

The message from Madrid is that the European constitution remains firmly on the agenda.

We are ready to listen to the other countries, said the Spanish minister for Europe Alberto Navarro, but "we prefer to improve the treaty rather than to use the scissors, to cut the treaty".

Mr Navarro insisted that the countries that ratified the constitution represent 60% of the EU's half a billion people and their voice deserves to be heard.

Collision course

Calling themselves "the friends of the constitution", the Europe ministers from the Yes camp met in an ornate 19th Century palace in the centre of Madrid, which some say is haunted by ghosts.

A suitable setting, perhaps, to try to revive a charter that many said was killed by French and Dutch voters two years ago. France was among the seven countries that stayed away.

For us, the constitution is dead, said a French diplomat, but we respect the family of nations who mourn over its corpse.

Portugal and Ireland, where ratification is on hold, also came to Madrid as observers.

European flags
Some European countries may be ready to push ahead on their own

But fears that the meeting would prove divisive seem to have been confirmed. Spain now seems set on a collision course with countries like Britain, the Czech Republic and Poland.

The Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, described the constitution as a "magnificent document" and said that instead of cutting it to pieces, more should be added to it to respond to people's concerns.

Mr Moratinos mentioned enlargement, immigration and social policy, which many say contributed to the defeat of the constitution in France and the Netherlands.

Other areas he would like included in an enhanced treaty are policies on energy and climate change - of concern to Eurosceptic countries like the UK.

But he also had a warning: that if no agreement could be found on the treaty, a core group of EU countries could go ahead with greater integration, leaving the others on the margins.

Mission impossible

While Mr Moratinos and his friends are calling for a more ambitious "maxi-treaty", the other camp - including Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic - want a more modest "mini-treaty", preserving mainly technical changes that would allow the EU to work more effectively and admit further new members.

It is also a way to avoid further referendums with uncertain outcomes throughout Europe.

Indeed, the first to propose it was the conservative contender in the French presidential race Nicolas Sarkozy, who made clear a mini-treaty would only need parliamentary assent.

Now it is up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has warned that failure to revive the constitution would be a historic mistake.

She wants to map a way out of the crisis by June, but finding the middle ground looks increasingly like mission impossible.

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