EU constitution row could last until 2005, Irish PM says

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The Independent Online

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, warned yesterday that it may take until 2005 to overcome a dispute that has delayed the adoption of a constitution for an enlarged EU.

Mr Ahern, whose country takes over the EU presidency on Thursday, said: "I feel that it might not be possible to conclude it next year, it could go into 2005. There certainly was no mood to settle in Brussels and no mood that we should settle in the short term." Rarely has an EU presidency begun amid such division and bitterness, after the collapse of efforts to agree on the constitution and calls for the emergence of a new core of countries committed to closer integration.

EU nations are also split onthe rules that underpin the euro and the amount of money that should be spent in future aid to poorer regions. To make matters worse, the European Commission is becoming a lame duck as it reaches the end of its mandate. One of the many sensitive tasks awaiting Ireland is to forge an agreement on a new president of the commission to take over at the end of the year.

Other priorities include overseeing the arrival of the new nations, which join the EU on 1 May, and ensuring that the expansion does not put too great a strain on the EU's rickety decision-making machinery.

Ireland will need to use all its diplomatic skills over the next six months. Talks among EU leaders on the constitution broke down in a dispute over voting rights. Poland and Spain refused to abandon a system agreed in Nice three years ago that gives them almost as many votes as Germany, which has twice the population of each country.

Germany and France would not compromise on their preferred option of "double majority voting", under which decisions would need the backing of half of all countries and 60 per cent of the population.

If Ireland sees an opportunity, it will seek to revive talks on the constitution but will not do so unless there is a strong chance of success. Mr Ahern told the Dublin-based Sunday Business Post that he would be consulting colleagues with a view to reporting to an EU summit in March. But he pointed to a number of issues that could hold up agreement, which include the Spanish election in March, the fact that the Polish prime minister will be out of action because of an accident and the European parliament elections in June.

"So there was a feeling at Brussels that this would drift outwards for maybe a year or more," Mr Ahern said. "Can we pick it up? If we believe there's a will to do it, we'll certainly do all we can to move it on." The risk is that discussions on the voting system will get intertwined with other issues, such as a debate about spending and whether the EU should start talks in 2005 on admitting Turkey. Some critics of the double majority plan believe that it would provide Turkey with too much influence if the country was admitted.

Ill feeling is also likely to be fuelled as finance ministers grapple with the problem of how to reform the euro's rulebook, the stability and growth pact. When Germany and France suspended the terms of the pact in November they infuriated many smaller states.

The biggest challenge for the Irish presidency will be to help overcome the deep divisions. But it will also be responsible for trying to revitalise the Lisbon agenda, under which the EU is supposed to become the world's most dynamic economy by 2010.