Poland clears way for EU constitution deal

Prospects of a deal on an EU constitution took a decisive step forward yesterday when Poland, which helped block agreement last year, changed course, opening the way for a solution within weeks.

Leszek Miller, the Polish premier, and his two most senior colleagues threw their weight behind a renewal of negotiations on the draft constitution, designed to smooth the workings of an enlarged European Union.

Efforts to agree the package collapsed three months ago after a dispute over voting power, with Spain and Poland on one side and Germany and France on the other. But a change of government in Spain on Sunday has already prompted pledges from Madrid to look for a solution.

Asked yesterday whether Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister should try to resume negotiations, Mr Miller replied: "I think it would be in the interest of the Irish government to conclude the whole work under the Irish presidency [which runs until the end of June]. I believe that all countries are more inclined to come up with a compromise."

Poland was left smarting in December when it took a lot of the blame for wrecking a deal, although France was proving intransigent too. Warsaw is anxious to avoid looking inflexible again, and is aware that it could be isolated following the change of heart in Madrid. Mr Miller said: "For an individual, loneliness is a very unpleasant mental state and for a country it would be very dangerous."

Last December Spain and Poland insisted on sticking to a voting arrangement agreed at a summit in Nice three years ago, givingthem 27 votes each, as compared to 29 for Germany which has twice the Spanish or Polish population.

France and Germany backed a scheme outlined in the draft constitution drawn up by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president. Under this plan for "double majority" voting, legislation would pass with the backing of a majority of countries, representing at least 60 per cent of the EU's total population. Paris and Berlin argue that the double majority system is vital to ensuring the smooth working of an EU of 25 countries and to avoid constant blockages in law-making. Poland now seems likely to accept some version of this system.

Germany has floated a plan to modify the formula, suggesting that legislation would need the backing of 55 per cent of countries and 55 per cent of the EU's population. Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Polish President, yesterday described this as a "very important and interesting idea". He added that Poland was "ready to discuss a compromise on the constitution".

Josef Oleksy, the Polish Deputy Prime Minister, said: "I believe that compromise is the basis for the functioning of the EU and a compromise will be achieved. The starting point should be the acceptance of the principle of the double majority."

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