Sun, May 28, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Europe's top diplomats meet to mull EU's future


EU foreign ministers were to symbolically cloister themselves inside a 12th century abbey yesterday to consider the bloc's future, almost exactly a year after French voters threw the continent into turmoil by rejecting what would have been the first Europe-wide constitution.

The envoys were gathering informally at the Roman Catholic monastery in Klosterneuburg on the outskirts of Vienna for a two-day "future of Europe" meeting.

Their challenge: bridging a perceived disconnect between the EU's elite and its 455 million citizens.

With most of the EU's 25 member states resigned to keeping the wounded charter on ice for another year, the ministers planned to debate ways to persuade ordinary Europeans -- many of whom remain skittish about their economies and cultural identities -- that closer integration and further expansion are worthwhile.

"We want to deepen and harden up the discussion," said Ursula Plassnik, the foreign minister of Austria, which holds the EU's rotating presidency. "The plan is to come up with specific proposals on how the EU could function better."

French voters dramatically shot down the constitution in a referendum on May 29 last year, and Dutch voters trashed it again less than a week later. Those rapid-fire rejections suspended a draft charter that was intended to accelerate the EU's inefficient decision-making and raise its profile as a global player by establishing an EU president and foreign minister.

But some good news since has emerged.

A one-year "reflection period" since the referendums has shown that Europeans generally support the idea of a constitution, but want the EU to focus on their day-to-day concerns such as crime, unemployment, immigration, social injustice and globalization.

A recently released Eurobarometer survey found that 63 percent of EU nationals favor a constitution. Support rose seven points -- to 67 percent -- in France since the referendum and by nine points -- to 62 percent -- in the Netherlands. Eurobarometer commissioned polling agencies to question 24,924 people across the EU in face-to-face interviews between Oct. 10 and Nov. 5 last year.

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