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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 18:56 GMT
EU wobbles over constitution

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Suddenly, the debate over the European Union constitution is going wobbly.

On the eve of an important negotiation by foreign ministers in Naples, the Italian presidency has put forward detailed new proposals which have had the effect of making things worse.

This follows an unexpectedly harsh warning from the British Government, which, having quietly predicted all summer and autumn that things would in due course turn out all right, launched the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw himself to threaten that it would veto the treaty if its demands are not met.

EU flags
Some countries are holding on to promises from the Nice Treaty
Britain thereby joined the Spaniards and Poles who made threats earlier about what they see as an unfair reduction of their voting rights in the proposed constitution.

So, with only a couple of weeks or so until the Rome summit at which the whole thing is supposed to be wrapped up, there is the usual EU crisis.

This does not mean that the project is doomed to failure.

It does mean that the real negotiations are only now starting.

The Italian document made things worse because it introduced a new idea, one which the presidency must have known was unacceptable to Britain and France.

This was that decisions on proposals from the new EU foreign minister should be decided by qualified majority.

Veto threat

The Foreign Office in London claimed that it was not aghast, though journalists invited it to agree that it was.

It was certainly surprised and one official, playing for time, mumbled something about the intricacies of the final stage of talks, meaning that maybe the Italians had simply put it forward in order to drop it later with a flourish.

The new EU constitution will not be approved if there is not an immediate accord which remains in the framework of Nice
Eduardo Zaplana
Spanish Labour Minister
Mr Straw himself appeared in the House of Commons and declared: "There are changes we require to the draft treaty in order for Britain to agree."

That, in diplomatic language, is a threat of veto.

But if the Italian plan upset Britain, it also upset the Poles and Spanish.

The Spanish Labour Minister Eduardo Zaplana said: "The new EU constitution will not be approved if there is not an immediate accord which remains in the framework of Nice."

The reference to Nice is to the Nice Treaty of 2000. This laid out qualified majority voting powers for a union of 25. Spain and Poland would each get 27 votes, only two short of the four much larger countries of Germany, UK, France and Italy.

Religion

Nice is being overtaken by the Constitution which has it own plan for voting - a majority of countries representing 60% of the total population. It is simpler but Spain and especially Poland say that they were promised more at Nice and more is what they want.

The problem is that the Italian paper made no proposal to resolve this, while accepting that the current position "is not acceptable as it stands".

These two examples indicate how touchy everything has become.

Even God has got into the act. Or hasn't.

The draft introductions, rather elegantly formulated by the former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, annoyed some of the Catholic countries (especially Poland, again, joined this time by Malta) by not mentioning Christianity as part of Europe's heritage.

The Italians recognise that there is a problem and simply promised to propose new language later, which would also point out the secular nature of the EU institutions.

Oaths

But if you mention Christianity, which other religions will want a line as well?

The Americans tried to keep God out of their constitution and government by stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

God has crept into the American way with the oath uttered by the President ("So help me God") and the pledge of allegiance which schoolchildren are taught ("One nation, under God"). But even the pledge is now under attack from separationists.

The Europeans are getting even more tangled up with religion but that, sadly, is what they have always done.


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