Poles lead EU awkward squad on new treaty

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The Independent Online

Poland, its critics say, combines the Euroscepticism of the British, the obstinacy of the Spanish and the arrogance of the French.

Today, after decades on Europe's sidelines, the Poles will emerge as leaders of Europe's awkward squad when the most difficult negotiations attempted by the European Union open in Rome.

Leaders of 25 nations gather under Italy's chairmanship to finalise a constitution for Europe. The summit will be hosted by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, and the Italians are demanding that the negotiations wrap up with a deal in December.

But each of the nations around the table has the right to veto a draft text drawn up by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

And for the first time, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and the other EU leaders will sit on equal terms with counterparts from the 10 mainly former Communist nations joining next year. In previous talks, the newcomers have been observers.

Italy faces a rebellion against M. Giscard's text from small EU nations, which fear loss of influence. There are also familiar problems with Britain over plans to scrap national vetoes.

Now Poland is demanding changes to M Giscard's draft in three, highly sensitive areas. One EU diplomat said: "The Poles have invested a lot in the idea that they are joining at the top table, that they are one of the countries to be taken seriously. You cannot underestimate their sense of amour propre, that Europe has to do right by them and show that they are big players."

The government in Warsaw is under fierce domestic pressure to get changes on the crucial issue of voting weights, knowing that failure to do so could bring down the shaky premiership of Leszek Miller.

With Spain - a notoriously tough negotiator - Poland wants to tear up M. Giscard's plan under which decisions taken by majority votes would need the backing of half of the EU members states, provided they represent three fifths of the EU's population.

Warsaw and Madrid want to go back to a complex weighted voting system, agreed at a summit in Nice in 2000, which favours nations of their size - one rung down from the EU's biggest players.

During the long nights of haggling at Nice, Poland nearly had to accept two fewer votes than Spain. Only a furious reaction and fierce lobbying won Warsaw the same number of votes as Madrid, forcing M. Chirac to backtrack and ascribe earlier ideas, improbably, to a typing error.

A country where the Roman Catholic Church has a strong grip, Poland is also pressing for an explicit mention of Christianity in the preamble to the new constitution, something resisted strongly by France.

Finally, the Poles support a gang of small nations - the so-called Like-minded Group - most of which want to overturn plans to slim down the size of the European Commission.

M. Giscard (backed by large nations) wants only 15 commissioners with full voting rights by 2009, while others have a lesser status.

That is anathema to many of the EU's "smalls", including nations such as the Czech Republic, which fear they would lose influence, and which want one commissioner per country with a full vote. Poland, though bigger than the minnows, also worries that it could be relegated to a second tier because it is a new nation.

Italy can rely on Germany and France to support the Giscard plan and is desperate to avoid a repeat of the horse- trading that characterised Nice. Another puzzle is how to reform the rotating presidency, now held by one nation for six months, into teams of countries.