Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Into extra time

Sources: EU Observer, AFP, Reuters, Ireland online and others

The least surprising news of the day is that it has been another session of "difficult negotiations" on the constitutional front, with French foreign minister Barnier challenging the Irish presidency to produce a compromise package to get the talks moving. "They have to take a risk", Barnier is reported to have said, adding that a "global package" - including a proposal on the vexed issue of the new voting system - has to be put on the table. "A little bit of vehemence is needed".

Much of the day seems to have been focused on the size of the future commission, with France and Germany calling for a reduction, along with Belgium. They are opposed by Denmark, Austria and Greece. Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero Waldner said having one commissioner per country tied Austrian citizens to the Commission. She said she would only consider talking about the institutional issue as a part of a final overall package - which included proposals on the voting system.

However, God also put in a cameo appearance, with an alliance of Ireland, Poland, Italy and Spain renewing demands that the constitution should make a reference to Europe's Christian heritage. Although France is happy with the text as it stands, there are signs that this is going to be an increasingly problematical issue. "The problem cannot be swept under the carpet to please those who do not want to discuss it," said deputy Polish foreign minister Jan Truszczysnki.

And, after yesterday’s "salami slicing", today the banter has been about mosquitoes, which briefly invaded the negotiating chamber. As they buzzed irritatingly around the room, interrupting the flow of Straw's arguments, he suggested they were anti-British. Germany's Joschka Fischer countered that they were in fact pro-European.

Irish foreign minister Brian Cowen has responded to the talks by appealing for "patience and determination", the words "I remain confident that we will get this job done,” uttered firmly from beneath his stiff upper lip. Nevertheless, his confidence is not shared by many of the other players.

The crucial news of the day though is that the negotiations are going into extra time. The ministers will meet again on Monday 24 May, where they are expected to deal with the most controversial issue of all - the proposed new voting system.

However, even if this is agreed then, there are still so many outstanding issues, and so little time to deal with them, that there can be no real prospect of a June summit coming to a conclusion. The thing to watch is the “spin” – how the ministers explain why the summit cannot go ahead – unless the Irish presidency is going to take it to the wire, risking a humiliating collapse of the talks in June.

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