Two-speed EU inevitable, warns Prodi

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The Independent Online

A deep division over the future of Europe was given an embarrassing public airing yesterday when the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, disagreed with the new Irish presidency of the EU over the emergence of a two-speed Europe.

At the launch of Ireland's six-month presidency of the EU, Mr Prodi insisted that a hard core of member states would forge ahead together if a constitution for Europe is not agreed by the end of the year.

Negotiations on the constitution collapsed in acrimony at a summit in Brussels last month and Ireland has the unenviable task of trying to get the talks back on track. France and Germany highlighted the prospects of the creation of a "pioneer group" of integrationist nations after the failure of the Brussels summit, and won the backing of Mr Prodi.

But Dublin has tried to play down such speculation, seeing it as something that could only complicate its job. Ireland's Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, described Mr Prodi's views on the emergence of an avant garde as "not helpful", and promised to raise them at yesterday's meeting.

However, discussions between the incoming presidency and the European Commission yesterday failed to heal the rift.

Speaking in Dublin last night, Mr Prodi called for renewed efforts "for one year together to get a joint decision" on the constitution, adding: "If we are unable to have that we cannot wait forever. We cannot stop Europe." The moment would come, he said, when "somebody must give an example" because "Europe cannot always go at the speed of the very, very slowest wagon".

Mr Ahern replied that the European countries wanted to "move together" as a union of 15 member states which is shortly to expand to 25. Although he acknowledged that the failure to agree a constitution would prompt calls for a look at "other ways" of proceeding, he declined to back the idea of a hard core or to commit Ireland to being part of one.

"We don't want to contemplate failure of the constitution," he said. "The issue is that we are moving together." Brian Cowen, Ireland's Foreign Minister, said he had heard no more of plans by a group of countries - including France, Germany and Belgium - to issue a declaration in favour of the constitution.

Ireland is due to decide by March whether there is now sufficient political will to revive the negotiations.

But the constitution is only one of a host of prickly subjects confronting Dublin. The EU must decide by June on a new president of the European Commission, and Mr Ahern said that there was no "fixed position" on whether candidates needed to be current or former heads of state.

A host of likely candidates is squaring up for the job including Costas Simitis, the Greek premier who is standing down, the former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen, and the premiers of Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg, Wolfgang Schüssel, Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker.

Potential candidates who have not been heads of government include Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister and the Irish president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox. The Irish presidency must also help smooth the admission of commissioners from the 10 acceding countries, and Mr Prodi said he will have received a draft list of appointments from the respective capitals by the end of February. They must then be approved by the European Parliament before taking office on 1 May, when the new member states will formally be welcomed into the EU, a move that will be celebrated with a large public ceremony in Dublin.

Ireland also aims to regenerate the moribund Lisbon process under which the EU pledged to become the most competitive economy in the world by 2010. Mr Prodi conceded that the plan was entering a "decisive period" and that the strategy for prompting higher growth had probably been implemented too slowly. "This year we have to demonstrate that we can do it," he added.

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