Hain holds out for an EU president with greater power

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Britain was mounting a last effort yesterday to give wide powers to a proposed new EU president, as the outline of a deal on how to run an enlarged Europe emerged from intensive negotiations.

The former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing appeared to have broken weeks of deadlock by tabling an updated blueprint with concessions to the EU's small member states who had blocked progress.

Under the revised plan, small nations would have the same rights as their larger partners to nominate European commissioners after the EU's expansion. M. Giscard wants to slim the European Commission to 15 members in 2009, giving all countries the right to have a voting commissioner on a system of rotation. That would mean Britain, and every other country, would have a full representative for probably five years out of every ten, with a non-voting deputy commissioner for the other five.

The other opponent of M. Giscard's plans, Spain, appeared isolated. Spanish delegates are still resisting plans that would in effect reduce the country's voting rights in the Council of Ministers. Britain, meanwhile, said its support for the plan depended on winning assurances on the powers of the Council president, and guarantees that the national veto would not be scrapped in areas such as tax and social security.

Time is short because M. Giscard wants agreement on his proposed new constitutional treaty from a convention of 105 European politicians by the end of next week, so he can present it to EU leaders on 20 June. EU heads of government have the final say, but they would be reluctant to reject a plan with broad support from the convention.

M. Giscard said there was a "basis for consensus" on the plan, although Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary who represents the UK in the convention, said that there had been "progress but not quite enough".

Mr Hain is worried that British-backed plans to create a president or chairman of the European Council, where EU governments meet, could be neutered by small nations and supporters of a federal Europe, who would see it as a power grab by the capitals of big states. The new president is to have some role in foreign affairs, for example attending summits between the EU and other countries such as Russia or the United States.

This will be "without prejudice" to the powers of a new EU foreign minister, who would be based in the European Commission.

But the critical issue of whether the Council president has the power to set the agenda in the EU's decision-making councils, such as those dealing with the internal market, remains unclear.

Mr Hain said it was "essential" that the president's powers extended to such areas. He said of his critics: "If they think that they can make this full-time post one that is decorative and honorific then a deal won't be made."

Elmar Brok, a senior German MEP, said the convention was "on a good way to consensus" but added that the president's powers would be strictly limited. The post would "not have executive powers", he added.

Andrew Duff, a Liberal Democrat MEP on the convention and opponent of the Council presidency plan, said that it had been "greatly watered down" and that it was important to stop the idea of "a super-president re-emerging from the shrubbery".

He welcomed a revision ensuring that the president could be a member of another EU institution, thus opening the way for the possible fusion in the future of the posts of president of the Council and of the European Commission.

To the anger of Spain, M. Giscard wants to unpick a complex voting system agreed at Nice in 2000, replacing it with a simpler "double majority" scheme. Under this proposal, a decision would pass if backed by at least half of the member states representing at least 60 per cent of the EU's total population.

As a step towards this he suggested "super qualified majority voting" for some sensitive areas, but did not specify which. Under this plan, a decision would need the backing of two thirds of member states representing 80 per cent of the population.

Spain, which has a population 20 million lower than Britain, France or Italy, would see its clout reduced under such a system.

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