Britain and Poland unite in move to block EU constitution reforms

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Britain and Poland tried to block a Franco-German plan to simplify the EU's complex voting rules at the weekend as their new diplomatic alliance swung into top gear.

The move came as European foreign ministers edged towards a deal on plans to reform the European Commission at a meeting about the proposed new EU constitution.

The gathering in Naples highlighted the risk of a collapse of negotiations when EU leaders meet in Brussels in less than two weeks to finalise the constitution.

Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, took his counterparts by surprise earlier this month when he pledged, in the Polish media, to support Warsaw. British officials, who wanted a counter-balance to Franco-German influence, said they agreed with Warsaw on almost all issues.

The biggest issue that might block negotiations on the constitution is power within the law-making Council of Ministers and the sharing of votes among national governments.

At a summit in Nice three years ago, Spain and Poland were each given 27 votes in the Council, only two fewer than the most populous states, including Germany, which has a population double their size.

The deal was defended in Naples by Poland's foreign minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who called it "much better for the union".

However, Germany and France are pressing for the new "double majority" system under which voting weights would be scrapped and decisions would need the support of 50 per cent of member states representing 60 per cent of the EU's population.

Mr Straw argued in Naples that, as the system agreed in Nice would remain in force until 2009, a decision on its future could be delayed for several years.

Though the Foreign Secretary presented that as an initiative of the Italian presidency of the EU, its foreign minister, Franco Frattini, sent out contradictory signals. He alluded to the idea but denied he had suggested it - and one official accused Mr Straw of making misleading comments.

The Italian presidency may produce a plan for a vote to be held around 2008 on whether to proceed with double majority voting. No detail has been discussed, however, and critics of the idea say it would rip the heart out of the constitution by removing the one plan that would simplify decision-making. Delaying a decision would be anathema to Germany whose foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, said: "I am leaving Naples more concerned than I was when I arrived."

Time is now short, and progress was painfully slow on most issues at Naples. However, the bones of a possible compromise emerged forslimming the European Commission as the EU expands to 25 countries. Mr Frattini said a "broad consensus" favoured each member state - initially at least - sending a full voting Commissioner to Brussels.

Small nations have fought against plans to limit the size of the Commission to 15 voting members, stripping them of the right to send a full representative to Brussels.

"Obviously, EU member states want to participate fully in the life of the Commission," Mr Frattini said.

Ireland backed calls to give the 10 nations about to join the EU a chance to send a Commissioner to Brussels, before phasing out the automatic right to appoint one. That implies a deal either to slim the size of the Commission but only at a specified future date, or to postpone any decision.

However, France and Germany have not backed the plan. Moreover, these large nations, which get two commissioners each now, are demanding the right to keep them for the interim, creating an unwieldy team of 31 Commissioners.

Diplomats were divided on the prospects of a deal in Brussels, with some critical of the Italians for leaving detailed negotiations on specific issues to the summit itself. But one said: "For the first time, I had the sense at this meeting that people had got into the mindset of wanting to do a deal."