The former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing offered a concession yesterday to the EU's smaller countries in a move expected to break the deadlock over hard-fought plans to revamp Europe's creaking structures.
But M. Giscard also warned members of his 105-strong convention that if they refused to rally around an emerging consensus he would hand vital decisions to heads of government, depriving them of their chance to shape the EU's future.
In an important shift, M. Giscard said he could accept most of a plan put forward by Benelux countries that would allow all countries to send a Commissioner to Brussels but, eventually, permit only about half of them to vote.
With 10 new countries due to join the EU next year, the Commission needs to be trimmed in size to make it effective. But small member states are alarmed that they will lose their influence and have fought a lengthy battle against the idea.
M. Giscard told The Independent that in the initial phase of enlargement all countries should be able to nominate a Commissioner, but that ultimately Commissioners should be "rotated", with only half having a full vote.
He added that he is drawing up proposals for guidelines on how the rotation would take place, while leaving the final say to the European Commission president. He argued: "This rotation should be handled by the Commission president because you need to have some flexibility, to choose a strong personality or a qualified specialist.
"It cannot be too systematic because you cannot have, at one moment, only [Commissioners from] big countries and at another only small [countries]. You cannot have no countries from the south."
The right to send a Commissioner to Brussels has been one of the most divisive issues but there has also been opposition to M. Giscard's proposal for a new president, or chairman, of the European Council.
In a thinly-veiled warning to members of the convention who oppose this plan, M Giscard said he could decide to present EU leaders with options, rather than a completed text of a draft constitution. He warned: "We would rather present options than a bad compromise. If the text is not good, the risk of failure if great."
EU leaders have the final say on the new EU constitution, but will be under pressure to accept a consensus text drafted over 15 months by the 105 politicians represented in the convention. If Europe's leaders are presented with options it will be much easier for them to unpick the work of the convention.
M. Giscard also hit back at his critics in the British media, saying their attacks did not surprise him: "I know the British talent for fiction. It brings to mind the style of P G Wodehouse: 'It is a secret convention made up of foreigners, secret because it is hidden in Brussels. All the same it is a project to destroy British sovereignty.' It is Wodehouse."