Monday, May 24, 2004

Foreign ministers: some agreement, but not much

Updated

Sources: Bloomberg, AFP, Financial Times

News is only just beginning to drift out on the resolution of the foreign ministers' "emergency meeting" in Brussels today – the last-ditch attempt to resolve the major issues on the constitution before the summit on 17/18 June.

After what was clearly a marathon session – although relatively short by EU standards – some indications of the mood can be gained by the comment from Jack Straw when he emerged: "Predictions of success and weighing of odds are, I think, a pretty pointless exercise", he said. "These things are never over until they're over."

Irish foreign minister, Brian Cowen, is being pretty tight-lipped about the outcome, announcing that "Things are going as we planned them", telling reporters that he hoped to be able to produce a full text that would meet with agreement.

Pressed for more details, he refused to give any, saying that the "community method" – whatever that means - has to be given time to work. "It's not rocket science, but it's the way we work," he added. "It doesn't make front-page headlines in terms of no fisticuffs, but I can only tell you what the truth is. There is no point in having a melodrama."

Despite this, the Financial Times has done its best to talk up the meeting, with its headline, "Foreign Ministers bullish on EU treaty", but this does not seem to be wholly the case.

Spain and Poland seem to have indicated that they might be prepared to live with a "double majority" voting system on the Council. The second vote, based on a regime where countries representing sixty percent of the EU population, seems the consensus option.

However, it is also reported that Poland still has "some reservations" and Polish foreign minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, asked if changing the threshold figures would be enough, said: "It will be part of a solution, but it's not enough."

As part of the package, to offset the small countries loss of influence on the Council - and the commission - ministers also discussed raising the minimum number of seats in the European Parliament allotted to the smallest member states such as Malta, which currently has four.

No agreement on this was reached but there has been complete agreement on removing the proposal that the European Parliament should have the final say on the EU's annual budget.

There was no agreement at all on the question of God. The seven countries named in an earlier Blog have reaffirmed their commitment to demanding a reference to Christianity in the preamble of the constitution. But France is totally opposed to this proposition.

It would appear that the substantive issues on unanimous voting on tax, social security and foreign policy, also have not been resolved, so Britain's red lines are still under threat.

These and other outstanding issues – about which more will emerge when the Irish presidency issues its final, pre-summit draft of the constitution – will go to the summit in June, presided over by a Bertie Ahern who is anxious to see its success as the crowning achievement of his political career.

With the current arguments about the inclusion of Christianity in the preamble though, the outcome of this summit may be in God's hands than Ahern's. Whatever else, agreement cannot be that close or Cowan would have been chirping like a sparrow about his success.

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