Friday, May 28, 2004

An alternate universe

Not for the first time, one wonders whether Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern shares the same planet with the rest of us. According to the Financial Times, he hopes to wrap up the negotiations on the constitution before lunch on Friday 18 June, the second day of the forthcoming summit.

This flight of fantasy apparently reflects the Irish presidency's confidence it can put forward a final treaty text that commands support from all 25 EU leaders. His officials, however, seem less sanguine. "I think we can do it in a reasonable time frame," said one. "I wouldn't rule out the debate going on into Friday evening or even into the early hours of Saturday, but we're not staying all weekend."

More likely, given the substantial number of items still to be agreed, this is simply Ahern posturing, hoping that the fantasy comes true simply by dint of constant repetition. Yet, in the two days of negotiations, normal European Council business has also to be conducted, including the contentious issue of deciding on the next commission president.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, seems to be emerging as a strong candidate but Blair is likely to take a great deal of stick from the Eurosceptic British press if he supports such an ardent federalist. Ahern may have to delay the discussion to allow the talks to concentrate on the constitution By the end of June, therefore, there is even a prospect that the EU could be without a new commission president designate, as well as a constitution.

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