The greatest task facing the Austrian presidency now is to judge how much life, if any, can be breathed into the aborted constitutional treaty. There is little chance that the treaty itself or any similar document will ever be acceptable. The "no" votes from France and the Netherlands have put paid to that, along with the resentment of voters in some other countries who were not given the opportunity to register their views in a referendum.
It remains true that the reasons for the French and Dutch "no" votes had little to do with the contents of the treaty: they were rather a reflection of domestic political discontent. Regrettably, however, Europe has, in one of Mr Blair's favourite phrases from another context, moved on. New times demand new solutions.
The difficulty, for Austria and for Europe, is that many of the old reasons for drafting a constitutional treaty in the first place not only still exist, but are more pressing than ever. The first and most obvious is the clumsiness of the current structural arrangements. These were designed for a European Union of 15 or fewer. The six-month rotating presidency and the principle of commission portfolios for all makes life needlessly complicated. It fosters inconsistencies and discontinuity and it diminishes the European Union's international clout.
There is surely an argument for revisiting plans to streamline the EU's structures. If a full-time president with a longer-term mandate is not something that can be agreed on, the concept of a European foreign minister with a support department along the lines of the proposed European diplomatic service is worth reviving. For all the divisions over Iraq and divergent imperial legacies, the EU has been increasingly successful, in a quiet way, in pursuing agreed foreign policy and security objectives. The diplomatic initiative towards Iran has been a high-risk strategy that has been hanging by a thread, but has not failed. The successful launch this week of the first surveillance satellite in the Galileo project represents a significant joint investment in the future.
Future EU enlargement is the other area that will be high on Austria's list of priorities. Romania and Bulgaria have been promised membership by 2007, but both seem to have been backsliding, especially in implementing essential judicial reforms. The EU may have difficult decisions to take, including delaying accession for one or both by a year. Croatia and Macedonia have been recognised as candidate countries, along with Turkey. Having almost scuppered the formal start of accession talks with Turkey six months ago, Austria has a particular obligation to ensure that there are no more delays, however unpopular full membership for Turkey may be domestically.
While Britain's presidency began with high hopes, it was frustrated by events beyond its control - the bombings in London, the political hiatus in Germany and the riots in France, not to speak of the soul-searching prompted by the rejection of the constitutional treaty. Austria, with a fair wind behind it, has been cautious about raising expectations. It is now up to the politicians in Vienna to exceed them.Reuse content