European Commission chief Romano Prodi crossed swords with the Italian EU Presidency yesterday as increasingly difficult negotiations over a new constitution for the bloc entered a decisive phase.
EU foreign ministers are gathering in Naples for two days of intensive talks about the new charter designed to prepare the EU for its expansion eastwards next year.
But after a bruising week in Brussels that saw powerhouses France and Germany trample on EU budget rules, some nations appeared less willing to make concessions over the constitution, fearful that it might erode their authority within the bloc.
The mood was further soured by a flare up of tensions between Prodi and Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti.
Prodi told Corriere della Sera newspaper yesterday that he was deeply opposed to Tremonti's recent drive to include in the constitution a clause that will limit the Commission's power to enforce budget discipline in member states.
"We need those few but very important rules of economic governance to protect our currency and our growth," Prodi said in an open letter, signalling another possible showdown between EU ministers and the executive Commission.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hopes to crown Italy's EU presidency by sealing a deal on the constitution at a summit next month. But prospects for an accord look increasingly difficult in the face of a matrix of national interests.
The constitution represents a thorough overhaul of EU institutions, readying the 15-nation bloc for the arrival of 10 new members next May that will redesign the continent's boundaries and swell the EU's population to 450 million.
Italian diplomats say they have made much ground on several key areas such as empowering an EU foreign minister and forging closer cooperation over defense -- issues that had been seen as potential stumbling blocks to an eventual deal.
But they have yet to make any headway against Spanish and Polish objections to planned changes to voting mechanisms that currently give them a sway over EU policy-making that is out of proportion to their populations.
The bust-up over budgets this week has strengthened Spanish resolve not to give bigger nations more voting weight.
Prodi accused Tremonti yesterday of doing nothing to stop France and Germany riding roughshod over the EU's Stability Pact that lays down deficit rules.