Monday, May 17, 2004

You read it here first

More and more these days, as the print media degenerate into platforms pursuing their editors’ personal agendas, the way to find out what is happening in the world is to go to the news agency sites. At least they still concentrate on news gathering, and many of the stories which later appear in print are often taken more or less verbatim from agency copy, embellished by a few quotes from some dim-witted hack.

The foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels today is a case in point. Reuters and Agence France Press (AFP) cover it, but there is very little in the print media, apart from the Independent – which does at least try to follow European Union news.

The headlines of the agency copy certainly convey the nature of the event which will unfold today and into tomorrow. AFP offers "Clock ticks as EU launches final push for constitution", while Reuters goes for "EU constitution talks enter final straight". The essence of the story is covered by AFP in its first paragraph, as it recounts that, "EU foreign ministers gather in Brussels Monday to launch a final high-stakes push to hammer out a constitution for the enlarged bloc, with the clock ticking towards a deadline only a month away".

Reuters gives it a different but not inaccurate slant, featuring the Irish Presidency, which "starts its most challenging month on Monday as foreign ministers meet to thrash out the text of a constitution for the bloc, ahead of a summit of EU leaders on June 17".

The controversy over voting rights features prominently in both accounts, and the AFP also deals with the question of ratification, "even if an accord is struck". "Big question marks remain", it writes, adding that, "All member states are very aware of the high stakes involved...". A senior Irish diplomat is quoted as saying, "We're going ahead in a mood of determination, of optimism and commitment." He also notes the Polish situation, and the possibility of an August election, but insists "there's no need to panic".

Reuters, however, picks up a bit of the detail, noting a "last-minute change", claiming that EU negotiators on Friday had agreed "to enshrine the goal of price stability in the bloc's charter, at the request of the European Central Bank". Actually, it was Thursday, but never mind. But, according to Reuters, the presidency expects broad consensus on this amendment. "No one had spoken against it". But had they also noted that economic policy is now QMV? Reuters is silent on this issue.

The only other source, at the time of writing, was the Independent, which gets it nearly right. It refers to the plans for changing the structure of the commission, and reports that, "with little more than four weeks until a crunch summit in June to finalise the constitution, the Irish presidency of the EU is playing a waiting game before it presents plans on many of the most difficult issues".

As one would expect, the Independent also deals with Blair’s "red lines" but offers no detail about the nature of the battles to come, and the Herculean task facing the British negotiators, if any are to be salvaged. And it too recounts that the central question remains that of voting weights.

However, none of the sources, as yet, have picked up how much the current treaty draft has changed from the original, supposedly finalised in July 2003, and still on the Convention web site. And it is these changes, I suspect, that many battles will be fought – before even the headline issues can be addressed. And it is in these that, possibly, lie the seeds of failure.

It will be interesting to watch the convulsions of the media, as these issues emerge. Just remember – you read it here first.

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