Talks boost hopes of breaking EU deadlock on constitution

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The Independent Online

A plan to break the deadlock over the central issue blocking a deal on the European Union constitution is being drawn up, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday.

Mr Straw said talks are under way on the terms under which a final decision on changing the EU's voting system can be deferred, thereby avoiding an acrimonious clash at the EU summit in Brussels that starts on Friday.

The draft constitution for Europe, which is due to be finalised by the EU leaders in Brussels, needs the backing of all 25 current and acceding member states.

Spain and Poland are determined to defend a voting system won at the Nice summit in December 2000, in which they have 27 votes, compared to 29 for the EU's biggest nations, including Germany, which has more than double the population of either country. Germany and France are defending a new system, proposed in the draft constitution, under which decisions would require the backing of half of all EU countries and representing 60 per cent of the EU's population.

So sensitive is the issue that the Italian presidency of the EU is holding back its final compromise until the 11th hour, and will not make any new proposals in a fresh document to be produced today.

Mr Straw said the discussion is on whether to "come back to the issue [of voting systems] in 2008, then the question is on what basis we come back to the issue ... Would you come back for just a general discussion in which Spain and Poland could continue to block if that was their wish?"

Two other options suggested by the Foreign Secretary were for "an agreement in the bag now to move" to the system of double majority, subject to vote in 2008, requiring a qualified majority of countries voting in favour. Such a system might be acceptable to Spain and Poland.

The alternative would require a qualified majority to reverse the planned change, something Mr Straw called a "reverse veto". This might be enough to satisfy Berlin because it would involve agreement in principle that the new system should come about.

Foreign ministers from Ireland, Finland, Austria and Sweden failed to win backing yesterday to neuter a clause on mutual defence in the draft constitution, though the concerns of the "non-aligned" nations will be taken into account by the Italian presidency.

Mr Straw also came out against proposals by several countries where the Roman Catholic church is strong to include a reference to Christian values in the preamble.

But Tony Blair's plans to portray the constitution as good for Britain and Europe were undermined yesterday when the Labour MP who helped to draw it up warned that it would centralise power in the hands of a self-selecting EU elite. Gisela Stuart, who sat on the convention chaired by the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, said the draft it produced would shift power to the centre rather than back to national governments. She said it was "riddled with imperfections and moulded by a largely unaccountable political elite". Many of those involved in the convention appeared primarily concerned with furthering their careers in European politics, she said.

David Heathcoat-Amory, the Tory representative on the convention, said: "I think the Government has really got to pause now, realise people like Gisela Stuart are really now saying we shouldn't accept it."