Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

A real victory for 'Mr. Fudge'

The EU Constitution was supposed to be a compromise that pleased everyone, but critics say it is a watered-down accord that leaves very few people happy

AFP , Brussels, Belgium

At worst, it is reviled, and at best, it is seen as a fudged compromise. The EU Constitution was never likely to please everyone, and so it has proved.

The deal hammered out last Friday at a tumultuous summit of EU leaders bears all the hallmarks of a text put under the near-impossible strain of satisfying the vastly differing interests of 25 nations.

Still, the EU's Irish presidency did well to get a deal at all after the fiasco of a failed December summit.

At one point late in the day, God nearly scuppered accord. Poland and other Roman Catholic nations fought in vain to have a mention of Europe's Christian roots inserted into the Constitution's preamble.

But Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern managed to steer a deft course through a bewildering maze of "red lines," blocking maneuvers and obscure explanatory clauses so that all leaders could come away with a "win-win" solution.

The 333-page end product condenses 80,000 pages of EU laws spread across four treaties into one new one.

It was labeled "historic" on all sides as bleary-eyed EU leaders took to the microphones to start the toughest battle of all -- persuading their nations to ratify the treaty.

Much of the European press reaction was disgruntled at British Prime Minister Tony Blair for pushing through what they called a watered-down treaty.

Blair secured his "red lines" that Britain will not lose its veto over a range of EU policies including taxation, defense and foreign affairs.

"Why did you join the Union if it was only to sabotage it?" the Brussels newspaper La Libre Belgique demanded to know, angry also at Blair for rejecting Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhof-stadt as the next chief of the EU executive.

For its part, the euroskeptic British press reprised its charge that the Constitution amounted to a "blueprint for tyranny" by Brussels and predicted Blair would never win the referendum he has promised to the British people.

But for Julie Smith of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, "the real winner is Mr Fudge."

"A lot of decisions seem to have been pushed over and rolled back," she said.

The leaders agreed to limit the size of the European Commission to 18 members -- but only from 2014, and then only if member states don't unanimously agree in the interim to change their minds.

The smallest member states such as Malta and Luxembourg are guaranteed a minimum of six seats each in the European Parliament, which will see a doubling of its powers to co-legislate with the member states.

On the most vexed issue of all, the constitution settled on a new "double majority" system to decide EU laws. Legislation will need the approval of 15 of the member states, representing at least 65 percent of the bloc's population.

Crucially, it also sets out that a minimum of four countries is needed to form a "blocking minority" -- effectively ensuring that EU heavyweights Britain, France and Germany cannot themselves throw out a piece of legislation.

"It could be quite significant in stalling legislation. Four member states isn't actually very many to block legislation," Smith commented.

More positively, the Constitution will give the EU a "president" elected by its member states to guide its work. That should give continuity to policy-making by replacing the current six-month rotating presidency.

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