Richard North, 12/05/2004  

Updated - see last paras

It is truly a measure of the inadequacy of our media that they seem to have opted out of reporting on the EU constitution, just as EU Observer, with its base in Brussels at the heart of the monster, is excitedly reporting "constitution negotiations reach fever pitch".

Thus, while the mainstream British newspapers devote their headlines to the appalling situation in Iraq, developments closer to home have gone unnoticed.

What we are able to glean is that there was, apparently, an enormous bust-up between Brown and the "colleagues", with our Gordon insisting on the status quo ante, before the new Irish presidency draft appeared on the scene. And, more or less to confirm this, Baroness Symons, in the Lords debate last night announced that another "working document" would be produced by the presidency in advance of the foreign ministers’ meeting of 17-18 May.

Small wonder, therefore, that Lord Howell, responding for the Conservative opposition, spoke of a "new fog of uncertainty". "We have read in recent days about a whole string of new red lines and extra demands to which the Government say they will stick", he said.

Reflecting the increasingly confused situation, he added, "This lacks clarity because we were told last December that all the red lines had been agreed in essence, so it was merely a question of tying up ends. It now appears there are a whole lot of new red lines".

This confusion is mirrored by EU Observer, which notes that Brown is refusing to allow the European Parliament to have the final say over the EU budget – a power which was slipped into the new Irish draft - not taking away member states' veto on the multi-annual budget and not giving the European Commission power to start procedures against member states on the stability pact without the consent of finance ministers.

But, says EU Observer, "the water has become muddied since then and some member states claimed on Tuesday that they were not sure whether all of these proposals had been agreed unanimously".

The Irish EU Presidency will now draw up a "shortlist" of those issues where finance ministers can agree, said Irish finance minister Charlie McCreevy. But a diplomat from a large country, now says that "it is not clear when the list will be ready and to whom it will go". McCreevy, meanwhile, is unable to say on which issues finance ministers would be able to agree.

As before, however, the Irish are sticking to their mantra that all the issues are linked: "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". At this stage, though, the number of issues on which there is disagreement should reducing, whereas new areas seem to be opening up every day. To deal with them, foreign ministers have not ruled out a further meeting in May.

The result of any such deliberations will, of course, produce yet another draft of the constitution – or "working document" as the Irish prefer to call it – bringing the timing perilously close to the supposedly final IGC summit on 17-18 June.

As it stands, it would be very foolish to predict that there will be agreement at the summit – or even that the summit will take place. More and more, it is looking like the baton will have to be passed to the Dutch presidency, which starts on 1 July, with a final summit rescheduled for mid December.

This sentiment seems to be being voiced in Whitehall as well where, according to the Guardian, "there are now influential voices suggesting it may be better to drag the talks out beyond next month's deadline, though that would be an embarrassing failure for the EU, especially just after its biggest ever enlargement".

The Guardian also confirms that Ahern is "holding intensive talks to try to bridge the gaps". Success may well be slipping from his grasp.

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