More swipes at Berlusconi as Italy struggles to deliver EU constitution

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The Independent Online

Italy's hopes of clinching a deal on a European constitution during its six-month EU presidency have suffered a crushing blow, after a rebellion by nations demanding more negotiations.

At a meeting in Riva del Garda foreign ministers from the EU's smaller countries, and from some of those about to join the EU, insisted that more issues need to be discussed and extra time allotted if necessary.

The weekend row killed any lingering hopes that the draft treaty, compiled by the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, will be adopted with little debate. That increases the risk that, as more issues are reopened, the whole exercise will unravel.

Backed by Germany and France, Italy wants to finish talks by the end of the year to allow a new treaty of Rome to be ushered in by the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. But one EU diplomat declared yesterday: "The idea that we were not going to discuss anything is dead."

Poland, which will join the EU next year, took a prominent role in the opposition to Italy's timetable because it opposes plans for a rule change which might weaken its voting power on key decisions. Its Foreign Minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, said: "Nothing, nobody can limit our rights to defend our position. No one can impose such a demand on us. It would be ridiculous and not compatible with Polish sovereignty."

Finland's Foreign Minister, Erkki Tuomioja, accused Italy of trying to stifle dissent, saying that "the majority of countries want a real constitutional conference".

Meanwhile the Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, doubted Italy's ability to close negotiations, predicting that the next EU presidency, Ireland, will be left to pick up the pieces. In a sideswipe at Mr Berlusconi, Ms Lindh said it would be "easier for Ireland" to clinch a deal because it is "politically better anchored".

Even before the weekend meeting a document circulated by Italy conceded that a host of sensitive subjects will have to be reopened. These range from the issue of whether the constitution should include a reference to Christian values to the scope of EU defence policy. They also include plans to scrap national vetoes on decision-making, the job description of a proposed new EU foreign minister, and a plan to change voting weights agreed in Nice three years ago.

The Italians have also conceded the need for negotiation on the issue that has angered the EU's small countries: plans to end the automatic right of each EU nation to send a European commissioner to Brussels. This proposition, opposed by the European Commission itself, has fuelled fears that the EU's big nations will dominate decision-making. In addition, M. Giscard's proposals to streamline law-making in Brussels by creating one legislative council will now be discussed. The idea has received almost no support and is almost certain to be scrapped.

However Italy's Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, rejected calls for a formal group of officials to negotiate on the new constitution. Instead foreign ministers will do most of the work while legal experts work in parallel.

Britain, which has a host of problems with M. Giscard's text, said it was happy with the outcome of the meeting. The UK wants changes on issues including defence, plans to extend majority voting on tax, social security and justice and home affairs, and moves to create a European public prosecutor. It also has doubts about the plan for an EU foreign minister.

British officials said they accept Italy's timetable for a year-end deal as a target rather than a deadline. Other diplomats described the prospect of clinching agreement by December as "ambitious".