Cold shoulder for Prodi's EU 'superstate'

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Ambitious proposals to boost the powers of the European Commission president, reduce national vetoes and revamp the treaty governing EU membership received a cool response from key-member states.

Ambitious proposals to boost the powers of the European Commission president, reduce national vetoes and revamp the treaty governing EU membership received a cool response from key-member states.

The document, produced by a team of three "wise men", sketched a range of changes which would bolster the position of the commission president and the European Parliament as the EU enlarges to the east. However, the report, commissioned by Romano Prodi, European Commission president, was shorter and less specific than expected, ducking several crucial issues. In particular it avoided specifying the policy decisions for which a national veto would be kept, although it did recommend that majority voting should be the rule and should be extended into the domains of common foreign and security and justice and home affairs.

Underlining a more pragmatic mood than expected, one of the three "wise men", the former British minister Lord Simon, said the document "was not about creating a super-state", adding that the use of majority voting for issues of taxation was unlikely.

Member-states have already agreed to discuss limited changes next year, including a review of the size and composition of the European Commission, the weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers and limited extensions of majority voting.

The team, made up of the former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, former German president Richard von Weizsäcker and Lord Simon, called on Europe to go further and modernise a system designed for six member-states.

The report called for a "strengthening of the authority of the [commission] president", who would have "more effective influence in the nomination and selection of commissioners". In addition, he would gain extra scope to organise their work and legal power to sack them.

The European Parliament should, it added, be given more powers of co-decision, under which MEPs can amend (or in some cases veto) legislation as a "democratic consequence of the extension of majority voting."

The most radical proposal was for a drastic revamp of the treaty, separating it into two elements. One would comprise fundamental elements which could only be changed by unanimity. The other, concerning "specific policies", could be altered by majority voting in the Council of Ministers.

Although this was welcomed in some countries, including Italy, diplomats said that it would entail a highly sensitive revision of the entire treaty. "Frankly," said one diplomat, "I do not see Germany, with all its domestic problems, in a mood for such a radical inter-governmental conference.

The report is expected to be raised in the British debate over Europe today when Tony Blair makes a statement to the Commons on the Tampere summit. Last night John Maples, opposition foreign affairs spokesman, said the plan would make the commission "the unelected government of a European superstate".

Diplomatic reaction was more sanguine, with several envoys pointing out that there is little appetite among big member-states for wholesale changes. The Finnish presidency of the EU said it was preparing its own, more limited proposals and Britain made it clear it would oppose extending majority voting in areas such as taxation, defence, treaty change and aspects of justice and home affairs.

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