EU bids to end constitutional stalemate in 2007

/ Source: The Associated Press

European Union nations agreed Sunday to give themselves another year to either end a stalemate over the ratification of their constitution or find some other way to enshrine their goals of expanding and exerting greater world influence.

A weekend EU foreign ministers meeting ended with a broad accord not to jettison the charter, which 15 nations have ratified and two others — France and the Netherlands — voted down in national referendums.

But if EU leaders cannot win support for the charter, even after revisions, they may try to push through similar goals in the form of a treaty. The phrase “constitution” had rankled many Europeans as being overly ambitious and had stoked fears of an EU superstate.

Austria’s foreign minister said the agreement, to be endorsed by EU leaders at a June summit, restored some optimism after the stunning French and Dutch “no” votes a year ago.

“The thunderclouds of last year are no longer there,” said Ursula Plassnik, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

The EU nations also agreed to stick with plans to spread security and prosperity eastward but also to be stricter in judging future candidates’ readiness for membership.

The aim is to enact all or part of the charter — possibly as part of a new EU treaty — by 2009. By then, Romania and Bulgaria will have boosted the EU membership roll to 27 nations.

At a two-day meeting at an old abbey outside Vienna, the foreign ministers also drafted a to-do list, including steps to combat cross-border crime, illegal immigration and provide more social justice.

Europeans, recent polls show, generally support the EU and even the idea of a constitution but want the bloc to focus more on day-to-day concerns such as crime, unemployment, immigration, social injustice and globalization.

Bid to streamline decisions
The constitution aimed to create simpler, faster EU decision-making and give the bloc a president and a foreign minister — selected by the EU governments — to raise Europe’s status as a global player.

In 2004, the EU absorbed Cyprus, Malta and eight East European nations. Romania and Bulgaria are to join next year.

Croatia and Turkey are negotiating entry, as are half a dozen Balkan states, and Ukraine and Moldova are knocking on the door. Austria has proposed locking the door temporarily after Romania and Bulgaria join.

An extra 12 months of thinking about the EU’s future will push a decision on the constitution past French presidential and Dutch general elections in spring 2007.

It will be up to Germany to resolve the stalemate, for it holds the EU presidency in the second half of 2007.