Austria aims to revive EU constitution

Austria has pledged to help bring Europe's constitution out of cold storage as its EU presidency started amid calls to salvage key elements of the treaty.

With no sign of agreement among EU member states on how to proceed, Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian Foreign minister, yesterday promised new consultations before decisions in June on what to do next.

Ms Plassnik called for a "new step in the debate on the future of Europe" under the "constitution process which has slowed down and which is now covered in a blanket of snow, waiting for Spring". She added: "What we need is climate change." But divisions in Europe's capitals on the constitution are mirrored by strains within the Austrian government. While Ms Plassnik called for wide-ranging consultation and refused to spell out any favoured solution, Hubert Gorbach, the Austrian Vice-Chancellor, suggested redrafting the text "from the beginning" with new emphasis on the powers of member states.

He said that after "two very strong 'no' votes, for us to re-edit in places then force a 'yes' vote would be illusory". Mr Gorbach, who comes from the BZO (Alliance for the Future of Austria) Party, which is the successor to the far-right grouping of Jörg Haider, added: "It has many good ideas enshrined in it and we must not forget these ideas but we need to have a strong foundation." Many believe that no decisions can be taken until after France's presidential elections in 2007. That leaves Austria with the unenviable job of securing agreement on the way forward.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has floated the idea reviving the constitution with a new annex on social values designed to reassure French voters.

Others favour a declaration emphasising national sovereignty. And integrationists have called for a hard core of nations to press ahead via the group of 12 countries that are signed up to the euro.

The constitution, signed by EU government chiefs in October last year, would create the posts of president and foreign minister for the EU Council (where member states meet), enhance the powers of the European Parliament, revamp the voting system, streamline the legislative process and add a human rights charter.

So far the document has been ratified by 13 countries with positive referendum votes in Spain and Luxembourg. But to come into force all 25 member states need to approve the treaty, and there is no prospect of the same document being put before voters in France and the Netherlands again. Some nations want to press ahead with ratification, but there is growing support for the idea of "cherry picking" elements and drawing up a less ambitious, new, treaty.

Key figures have begun debating the future. In an interview in E!Sharp magazine, Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, argues that "some elements" of the constitution could be agreed by the member states - but did not discuss the post of EU foreign minister for which he was nominated. He said: "I can tell you that the sooner the elements that are contained in the constitution relating to the decision-making structure are put in place, the better for the EU. Time is important."

Nicholas Sarkozy, the French Interior minister and a likely presidential candidate, argued in a recent pamphlet for more co-operation among the EU's six biggest nations.

He added that the treaty contains "important advances which improve the functioning of Europe, and would move towards a political Union", including the creation of new EU president and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He added: "Our objective must be to implement these advances, whilst respecting the democratic vote of the French people. One way or another, we must give Europe the procedures that will enable it to make decisions in a quick and effective manner." Salvaging elements of the treaty is fraught with difficulties however.

Several countries would find it hard to agree on innovations such as the creation of an EU foreign minister without a referendum.

Some diplomats think that crucial issues may be put off until 2008-9 to coincide with a review of EU spending. Rules on the size of the European Commission need to be revised before Croatia joins the EU, probably in 2009, and that would provide a pretext for a smallscale re-writing of the EU's rulebook.

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