Talks on EU constitution end in deadlock

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The Independent Online

Prospects of a deal on the EU's draft constitution suffered a setback yesterday as Britain and France clashed over national vetoes and small countries complained they were being sidelined.

Two days of talks among EU foreign ministers ended in deadlock, prompting the Irish presidency of the EU to schedule an emergency session next week amid fading hopes that the constitution will be agreed on schedule in four weeks' time.

France's foreign minister, Michel Barnier, hit out as Britain insisted on keepingthe national veto on taxation, social security, aspects of criminal law and the British budget rebate. "It is not useful to keep repeating positions," he said, adding that unless there is a change, the extra session, scheduled for Monday, may prove "useless."

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, also opposed calls from Paris and Berlin to simplify the creation of "pioneer groups" of countries. EU member states joining such groups could forge ahead with integration on specific policies without the others.

Mr Straw said he could not "be certain" that a deal on the constitution would be reached at a summit of EU leaders on 17 June but insisted the Government was working very constructively. Privately, British ministers would not lose sleep if negotiations collapsed because this would delay or halt the referendum promised by Tony Blair on the constitution.

Meanwhile, small member states served notice that they may not sign up to a compromise over voting weights, the issue that led to the collapse of negotiations last December. Spain and Poland want to increase their power to block measures they dislike using a double majority voting system, supported by France and Germany, under which legislation would pass with the support of a majority of EU nations representing 60 per cent of the bloc's population.

Suggestions that those thresholds will be raised, possibly to 55 per cent of countries and 65 per cent of population, have angered a group of 13 small nations that want decision-making made easier.

Erkki Tuomioja, Finland's foreign minister said: "We are very concerned that the [Irish] presidency has treated this issue as a bilateral negotiation between France and Germany on the one had and Poland and Spain on the other". He said small countries are "not at all happy with the state of play over the extent of majority voting" where the UK is digging in.

The small member states have also campaigned to keep the automatic right to send a commissioner to Brussels and, yesterday, they refused to accept a plan that would slim the Commission, probably to 18 members, after 2014. They expect to get a better deal at a later stage, perhaps by holding up the final package.

Mr Straw, who clashed with his French and German counterparts on Monday over a charter of citizens' rights which is written into the constitution, said he had come to Brussels "in a constructive spirit".

"We are certainly going into negotiations hard for the United Kingdom, as does every other country around the table," he said. And there was some good news for Mr Straw when the Irish presidency hinted it will scrap plans for some majority voting in foreign policy.

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