"Like-minded countries" meet in Prague to discuss changing EU constitution

02-09-2003

Is a new dividing line being drawn across Europe? Well, that's how one U.S. newspaper saw Monday's meeting in Prague of 15 members and potential members of the European Union. The informal club of "like-minded" nations - from Portugal on the Atlantic to Estonia on the Baltic - were invited to Prague by the Czech Foreign Ministry, part of what's believed to be a joint Czech-Austrian initiative to change the proposed EU constitution.

Small countries are unhappy with the proposal put forward by the Convention on the Future of Europe, and want to change it when discussion gets underway at the EU's intergovernmental conference (IGC), which begins in Rome in October. But does the emergence of this group of "like-minded countries" mean there is a new dividing line in Europe, separating the EU's big countries from the smaller ones? No, says the Czech Foreign Ministry's State Secretary for European Affairs, Jan Kohout.

"I don't think so. Absolutely not. There are old member countries present here, and it was stressed by some representatives here, by some state secretaries, that there is no wish to make any dividing lines, even in the field of European defence. The common goal is to have a more democratic, transparent and efficient European Union, where both legitimacies coming from the European people and from the European states must be balanced, and that's our goal. Otherwise we feel that the European architecture will not be functional."

Each country has its own particular bone to pick with the draft constitution, but the Prague meeting made it clear there were some things which more or less all of them agree on. First and foremost, each country wants its own representative on the EU's executive arm, the European Commission. The draft constitution proposes 15 fully-fledged Commissioners and 15 "associate" ones, ostensibly to ensure the Commission continues to function after enlargement. Some smaller countries also want to keep the EU's rotating presidency - which gives them the chance to sit in the EU's big chair for six months - instead of the proposed EU President.

Jan Kohout said the small countries accepted 90-95 percent of the proposed constitution, and did not want to wreck the draft. The big countries, which pay for the EU, say only minor changes will be accepted and have warned them not to rock the boat at the IGC. I asked Mr Kohout what chance he thought they had of getting any substantial changes approved.

"I think all the countries not present here have to take into account what was said and what was discussed here. Not to react, but to have in mind that there are some countries - although they are not orchestrating or coordinating any further action - that have similar views. It's really giving them the possibility - in their minds at least - to react, and if they wish to have a short and swift IGC, the political will and the flexibility must be on both sides."

A statement released after the meeting described the draft constitution as "a good basis" for the IGC, and said the group's aim was to "extend the spirit of compromise and transparency" in the Convention that created the document. It won't be clear until October whether the big countries are willing to rewrite it.

02-09-2003