EU may rename constitution in bid to secure approval

Europe's constitution may need to have a more modest name before parts of it can be salvaged, EU foreign ministers said yesterday as they agreed to put away the moribund draft treaty for at least another year.

With no consensus on how to proceed, they bowed to the inevitable and extended the 12-month "period of reflection", announced after French and Dutch voters rejected the constitution in referendums last year. Decisions on the future will be made after the French presidential elections next year, and possibly not until 2009.

Ministers also sent a warning to some applicants for EU membership by agreeing to elevate the importance of a key precondition of new accessions: the bloc's readiness to absorb new countries. The move might allow smaller nations to be admitted while bigger ones such as Turkey would be blocked.

The meeting failed to find any immediate way forward on the constitution but also illustrated that the issue cannot be deferred indefinitely. All 25 nations need to approve the text before it can be put into effect, but only 15 have done so.

Though the issue of the name change was not discussed formally yesterday, several member states backed the idea of axing the name "constitution" - one element of the document deemed to have put off voters. The text combines existing treaties and proposes changes to help the new EU operate more efficiently.

At yesterday's meeting near Vienna, the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, said: "I like the name 'constitution'. But we need to have all member states on board."

Germany, one of the biggest supporters of the constitution, holds the EU's rotating presidency in the first half of next year when decisions may be taken. The Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, insisted there was "no reason to give up" on the constitution, but suggested that the EU could copy Germany, which has a "basic law" rather than a constitution. He also said final decisions might have to wait until after a review of EU spending in 2008. "We need two more years. My horizon lies around 2009," Mr Steinmeier said.

Finland's Foreign Minister, Erkki Tuomioja, said: "Everybody agrees it was a mistake to call it a constitution, so that would be a very sensible change if that were needed." Finland hopes to become the 16th member state to ratify the treaty later this year.

However, one EU diplomat said: "You cannot rename something before you know what it is." Another added: "The name is only one of the things we have to change. We have to change the context as well."

At a summit next month EU leaders will have to decide whether to put another one-year time limit on the latest pause over the constitution. Austria, which holds the EU presidency, and Germany favour a clear timetable, though nations including the UK do not.

Most countries agree with Mr Barroso's strategy of spending the next year engaged on concrete projects to try to win over disgruntled voters.

Meanwhile, Austria sent out two distinct messages about the EU's frontiers. It sought to reassure nearby Balkan countries that they could become EU members. However, ministers agreed to elevate the importance of the EU's "absorption capacity" of new members as part of the so-called Copenhagen criteria which must be met before nations join.

The Austrian Foreign Minister, Ursula Plassnik, argued: "It's just common sense that you need to be ready for it if you want to take on a new member."

The Commission will define "absorption capacity" this year and it is likely to take into account the size of the country. That might make it possible to allow the accession of small, Balkan states but not Turkey.