Tuesday, May 25, 2004

And so (not) to the wire


All day yesterday we were getting messages of "confidence" from various luminaries on the European political scene, that a deal could be done on the EU constitution. There was Schröder, who was "quite hopeful", French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who said today he was "optimistic", and of course Bertie Ahern who has been doing nothing else but exude confidence.

Judging from what was clearly a clampdown on information emanating form the foreign ministers' meeting yesterday, and the diffidence of Brian Cowan, representing the Irish presidency, it is clear that all is not well.

And yesterday was the day that issues other than those primarily concerning the UK were aired. Yet the UK issues have yet to be resolved – at least to the satisfaction of Mr Jack Straw – which means that the number of issues which remain to be agreed at the summit must be quite considerable.

Yet, EU watchers will recall that at the Nice summit, there were only four substantive agenda items, and only fifteen member states negotiating. And that summit wens into an unprecedented fifth day and nearly collapsed over only one of the issues which will again be the agenda – voting rights on the Council.

Now with 25 countries actively engaged in the negotiations and with an unknown but substantial number of equally contentious issues on the agenda, it is hard to believe that any agreement on the final shape of the constitution can be expected, especially as only two days have been allotted for the summit.

In all probability, Ahern has already devised his exit strategy. It may well be that, over the next few days, coded messages will be leaked, suggesting that a final agreement is not being sought at the summit, carefully "spun" to indicate how much progress has been achieved.

The messages will then stress that it would be a mistake to put at risk all this progress for the sake of trying to rush the last fence – or words to that effect. Therefore, the final negotiations will be handed over to the Dutch, who – thanks to the sterling work done by the Irish presidency - will be able to bring them to a successful conclusion.

It could be, of course, that this message is reserved for the summit, when all the heads of states and governments will come out of the conference room after a relatively short time, all smiling for the cameras, to say that they have agreed – in the most amicable way possible – to disagree.

Whatever else happens, Bertie Ahern will not risk pushing to negotiations to the wire if he believes that no agreement can be reached. For the summit to break up in disarray, as it did last December, would spell disaster for the constitution, and seriously damage the EU as a whole.

On that basis, the central question is not so much whether, but how, the negotiations will be called off. The certainty is that they will be.

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