MEPs mock summit's 'gelato-stained napkin'

In a stormy parliamentary session yesterday, a host of MEPs blamed Silvio Berlusconi for the collapse of talks on Europe's constitution, as recriminations flew over Franco-German threats to create a "hard core" within the EU.

The Brussels summit ended in acrimony when Poland and Spain refused to accept changes to the voting system agreed at Nice three years ago.

France and Germany called for the creation of a "pioneer group" of member states forging closer integration, and backed moves to freeze the EU budget. That would curb subsidies to the countries about to join the EU, including Poland, and to existing beneficiaries such as Spain.

In Strasbourg yesterday one senior MEP ridiculed Mr Berlusconi for his pre-summit claim to have a compromise to rescue the talks. "The 'piece of paper' in Mr Berlusconi's pocket turned out to be a gelato-stained napkin with a few bad jokes scribbled on it," said Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the parliament. Mr Watson described the meeting as a "personal failure" for Mr Berlusconi, who was "poorly prepared".

The leader of the socialist group, Enrique Baron, compared Mr Berlusconi's performance with that of his football team, AC Milan, in a match on Sunday. "Milan did fine until penalties, but you didn't even get into the second half," he said.

Klaus Hänsch, a German social democrat, said the new split emerging in Europe was being caused by governments promoting "national interests over European ones".

Although the Italian liberal Francesco Rutelli backed the idea of "pioneer states" forging a hard core, he was in a minority.

The parliament's president, Pat Cox, said: "As an Irish European, coming from a country not one of the original member states, I am hostile to anything that would be exclusive." Elmar Brok, a German Christian Democrat, added: "I don't want to see a core Europe."

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