Analysis: Black clouds over Brussels

By GARETH HARDING, UPI Chief European Correspondent  |  June 17, 2005 at 1:26 PM
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BRUSSELS, June 17 (UPI) -- After the French and Dutch rejections of the European Union's first-ever constitution, European leaders were keen to show the bloc's 450 million citizens it was capable of delivering at a summit in Brussels Thursday and Friday.

"The EU must show it functions and can work well," said a senior official from Luxembourg, which currently holds the presidency of the Union, ahead of the meeting.

EU leaders tried their best to remain upbeat as the summit dragged on into a second day -- "I am optimistic we can persuade people the treaty provides the right set of rules for the future," said Luxembourg's wily premier Jean-Claude Juncker -- but there was no escaping the fact the meeting failed to provide clear answers to many of the big questions facing the EU.

On the future of the constitution, EU leaders agreed to extend the deadline for the ratification of the text to an undetermined date after November 2006 to give time for European citizens to "reflect" on the text. The decision, taken late Thursday night, does not mean the constitution is dead, just put deep in cold storage.

"EU leaders have bought themselves some time to see if public opinion changes over the next year, but I don't see the type of political leadership that will make citizens support the constitution and reconnect with Europe," said Sebastian Kurpas, an analyst at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

French voters roundly rejected the charter May 29 and the Dutch electorate followed suit three days later. Immediately after the "double whammy" from two of the EU's six founding members, Juncker, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the leaders of France and Germany said the ratification process should continue. But with polls showing the "yes" vote slipping in other EU countries planning to hold referenda and Britain keen to shelve the project, the bloc's leaders were forced to make a dramatic U-turn. "We don't want to give up the constitution, nor do we want to carry on with business as usual and pretend nothing has happened," Barroso told journalists late Thursday night. "We have decided to undertake a stock-taking exercise and have a wide-ranging debate amongst all Europeans."

Juncker said he hoped the ratification process would continue in the 13 countries that have yet to rubber-stamp the text. But after the decision was taken to indefinitely delay the deadline for ratification, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Portugal announced they were postponing planned referenda.

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said his country would not ratify the treaty unless France and the Netherlands held new referendums on it. "If they are not ready to go to their people again... well, then it has fallen by definition."

The constitution, which would create the posts of EU president and foreign minister, streamline decision-making and hand more powers to the European Parliament, cannot enter into force until it is ratified by all 25 member states. EU leaders must therefore be hoping that after two years of gentle persuasion, France and the Netherlands can be persuaded to put the text to their voters again. But with French and Dutch politicians ruling out a rerun of the divisive referendum campaigns and no one arguing for a renegotiation of the treaty, it is difficult to see how delaying the ratification process will restore trust in the Union.

EU leaders Thursday underlined the importance of listening to voters' concerns and bringing Europe closer to its citizens. At the same time, they refuse to accept that French and Dutch voters had rejected the constitution -- "It was more a vote against the Europe we have now than the Europe we are proposing," said EU parliament President Josep Borrell. They have also ruled out any changes to the charter so roundly rejected by the Dutch and French electorates. "There is no alternative to this constitution," Barroso told reporters. "There will not be a better treaty and there cannot even be a glimpse of any renegotiation," added Juncker.

One thing all European leaders appear to agree on is that Europe needs to change its way of doing business. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was battling to keep London's $5.5 billion annual rebate during heated talks on the EU's 2007-13 budget Friday, said it was important to "get the politics right before the constitution" and called for greater attention to citizens' concerns like immigration, crime and drug-trafficking.

"A Europe of 25 states clearly cannot function like it did with 12 or 15 members," says Kurpas. "You can freeze the constitution as long as you like, but the challenge of how to make the Union more open, efficient and democratic won't go away."

One summit agenda item EU leaders normally have no difficulty agreeing is a pledge to continue the eastern enlargement of the Union to include Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Turkey and other Balkan states. But with enlargement partially blamed for the 'no' votes in France and the Netherlands, heads of state were keen to avoid the subject in their draft conclusions.

President Jacques Chirac also became the first EU leader to openly cast doubt on the future enlargement of the EU after Bulgaria and Romania join in 2007. "In this new situation, can the Union continue to expand without us having the institutions capable of making this enlarged union work efficiently?"

After the French and Dutch votes, no one predicted the crisis summit in the Belgian capital would be easy. But with the constitution now effectively shelved, the EU's future enlargement in doubt and the British rebate still poisoning budget talks, the mood in Brussels remained as gloomy as the storm clouds gathering over the Belgian capital.

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