Wednesday, May 26, 2004

There is always one…

Despite what was clearly an attempt at news management by the foreign ministers’ collective after their meeting in Brussels on Monday – ensuring that no detailed account of the IGC negotiations reached the media – with a group as large as 25, there is always one who will break ranks. The "grass" in this case is Hungarian foreign minister László Kovács who has confided his inner feelings to the Central Europe Business News agency.

His view is that there is a fifty percent "or somewhat better chance" of reaching agreement on more heavily debated issues at the June IGC although, according to Kovács, last Monday’s meeting left out "the particularly important issue of the voting system". "Views on this issue are still too far apart to warrant discussing it just yet," he said.

Zoltán Horváth, head of the EU department at the Hungarian Parliament’s foreign affairs office, adds to this. "All that was really achieved", he says, "was finalisation of several areas "where member states reached an informal agreement last year". One of these was the general principles of enhanced cooperation schemes. There is to be included a stipulation that at least one-third of the member states must take part – which effectively stops Germany, France and just a few others launching off on their so-called "pioneer group".

Another important compromise was in the method of adopting the EU’s long-term financial perspectives (the budget). It was agreed that the next perspective for the period of 2007–2013 will be adopted with the unanimous agreement of all member states, while a qualified majority would be enough after 2013. This is one to watch, as the veto over the budget is one of Blair’s red lines.

As to the rules on majority voting, Horváth confirmed – as if we did not know already – that the key divisive issue is the concept of a double majority proposed by the Irish presidency. "Compared to last December, when certain member states opposed the whole scheme, now there is agreement on the scheme on the whole, but there is heavy debate about the actual figures defining a majority," he said.

Spain and Portugal are still holding out for a better deal, demanding a population minimum at 65–67 percent on the second-tier majority decision. But that has been rejected by smaller member states, such as Hungary. "I expect tough debate on this," Kovács said.

Nevertheless, some insiders are suggesting that much of what is being released by way of public comment is merely posturing by the political players, manoeuvring for a better deal. The parties, they think, are closer to agreement than the (few) headlines would suggest, with some estimating that there is an 80 percent chance of a deal in June.

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