Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Rounding up the iceberg

Sources: Reuters, AFP, Eupolitix and others

Behind the scenes there is much activity on the EU constitution front although, like the proverbial iceberg, very little of it is showing above the surface. One stand of activity is a planned meeting between Blair and the prime ministers of Spain and Ireland on Thursday

Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will make his first official visit to Britain to “compare notes on where we are now." Before meeting Zapatero, Blair will confer with Ahern.

Blair will undoubtedly confirm to the Irish prime minister that he is prepared to be flexible on the remit of a new European public prosecutor, agreeing that the post should be able to combat terrorism and cross-border crimes like corruption, fraud and people trafficking. This represents a significant concession as previously the British line has been to restrict the remit to financial crime against the EU budget.

While Blair is thus eroding his own bargaining position before the summit arrives – a peculiarly British habit, shared by governments of all complexions - Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is getting uptight about what he calls the “militarisation” of the EU.

At the launch of his party’s European election manifesto in Dublin, he warned that EU treaties had corroded Irish foreign policy and were threatening Irish neutrality. “The current situation – where there is a pretence that this state is neutral while our airspace and waters are used by belligerents in a conflict – that’s not neutrality,” he said. His particular beef is the use of Shannon as a refuelling base for thousands of US troops on their way to the “illegal occupation of Iraq.”

He has not commented so far in the campaign, however, about the demilitarisation of the Provisional IRA.

Meanwhile, Belgium has joined the ranks of Britain, Denmark, Ireland, Holland and others, deciding to call a referendum on the constitution. Prime minister Guy Verhofstadt announced that he would probably hold it in September, on the same day as a similar referendum in the Netherlands.

And in Paris, it has been announced that Chirac and Schröder will meet on 14 June in Aachen, three days ahead of the summit. The bilateral talks, also attended by the two countries' foreign ministers, are part of the so-called Blasheim process - regular meetings traditionally held before the EU summit to allow Paris and Berlin to harmonise their views.

It is during this meeting that the pair will aim to set the agenda for the summit and, in the past, the Franco-German axis has been able to call the shots. With ten more countries at the summit table, however, the axis may not be as powerful as it likes to think it is.

Howard, on the other hand – in between dismissing UKIP supporters as political gadflies and cranks - used a speech Southampton to warn about the report on “Building a political Europe”. “The Constitution is described as the start of a political Europe”, he told his audience. “The discussion document reveals proposals for a Europe-wide tax, a European minimum income, and giving the European Union ‘political territory’. It is an explicit commitment to create a fully-fledged European state in the next twenty years,” he said.

And, to complete the round-up, Ahern is telling everybody that he does not want to be the Commission president. Apart from anything else, he is unhappy with the thought of being stuck in Brussels. On this, for once, one can actually agree with the man.

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