Richard North, 05/06/2004  

Source: AFP

We seem to have reached a stage where the serpentine twists and turns of the negotiations on the constitution are becoming so complex and baffling that it is almost impossible to keep up.

To add to the confusion, we now have the intervention of Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who has added his ha'porth to the debate by proclaiming that only a "strict" double majority would ensure equality among European Union member states. "The ideal", he says, "would be that for taking decisions the EU gathers a majority of 50 percent of the states representing 50 percent of the population" of the EU.

This was the original formula in the draft constitution, but the Irish presidency has expressed its willingness to consider a 55 percent population threshold, or perhaps even 60 percent. This is supported by Germany, France, Italy and Britain.

However, Austria, like every other member state at the IGC summit, has one vote, and if it insists on parity – i.e., a 50:50 based population vote - the constitution is in further trouble. It seems to widen the gap with Spain, which has demanded a 66.6 percent threshold. This is something that Poland has supported, although its caretaker prime minister has also said he wants 80 percent.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Germany and Ireland have joined together to call on other EU nations to make compromises and, despite the increasing uncertainty, Ahern is now claiming that the chances of a deal are "slightly more hopeful" than the 50:50 chance he give it earlier.

Schröder, for his part, has promised that Germany "will go to the limit of its possibilities" in trying to reach an agreement and therefore hopes other member states which have been "hesitant" to compromise will now move. Nevertheless, the German chancellor is not declaring what his limit is.

Portugal and Spain seem to have responded to Schröder. The Portuguese secretary of state for European affairs, Carlos Costa Neves, has met his Spanish counterpart Alberto Navarro, and is talking of "an open spirit and flexibility on the part of all."

Spain is now suggesting that the compromise could be achieved by setting at four the minimum number of countries needed to block a decision, to avoid the EU being dominated by larger members. Navarro said this "would avoid, for example, Spain, France and Germany blocking a decision".

By the time they have finished messing about, one would like to think that attempts at an agreement will be finally abandoned because none of the heads of state and governments at the summit will be capable of understanding what is on offer, much less be able to explain it to their peoples.

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