EU treaty summit: nothing left to discuss?

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With most disagreements on the draft ‘Reform Treaty’ ironed out, the Portuguese Presidency has decided to shift EU leaders’ attention to a general debate on globalisation at an informal summit in Lisbon. Meanwhile, a new opinion poll shows citizens in the EU’s five largest member states are in favour of holding a referendum on the new text.

EU heads of state and governments gather in Lisbon on 18-19 October to put their seal of approval on a draft ‘Reform Treaty’ that will adapt the EU’s institutions after twelve new members joined in the past three years.

But with little left to discuss, Portuguese Prime Minister José Socrates has decided to shift EU leaders’ attention to other topics: the current financial market turmoil and preparations for the UN climate change conference in Bali later this year.

“I believe that these subjects are important and I hope that we will have a fruitful debate,” Socrates said. “I am however well aware that the agenda is ambitious and time is short, especially because my main priority will be to secure agreement on the future Treaty.”

  • Last hurdles on the way to a ‘Treaty of Lisbon’

Speaking ahead of the summit, Commission President José Manuel Barroso urged EU leaders to come to an agreement. “We have spent six years discussing the institutional architecture. It is time to move on,” he told journalists on 17 October.

However, he warned that the Treaty was not yet a done deal. “I understand that there are still points to settle. But this will not be the Battle of Lisbon. Everyone has the potential to leave Lisbon as a winner this week.”

The final outstanding political issue is Poland’s insistence on including the Ioannina compromise in the treaty text, allowing for key EU decisions to be delayed. However, none of the 26 other member states support the Polish demand. Parliament sources suggest that a possible option for compromise would be to add the Ioannina clause to a separate document, in the form of a protocol. Such a document would have the same legal status, but could be amended or scrapped by member states at a later stage without having to go through the cumbersome process of treaty change.

On Austria’s last-minute attempt to include a clause allowing it to limit the number of foreign students in its universities, Barroso said that the Commission was “ready to come to a solution”, but dismissed Austria’s quest to link the issue to the Reform Treaty as “not acceptable”. 

Similarly, he insisted that Bulgaria’s demand on the spelling of the euro should not be an issue at the treaty negotiations.

Meanwhile, Italy still upholds its opposition to include the new distribution of seats as proposed by the Parliament into the new Treaty text. Liberal MEP Andrew Duff said this “could be the most serious issue” left to resolve. 

But both the Commission and the Portuguese Presidency said they were confident that the EU founding member will not scupper a deal on the Reform Treaty over this issue. Moreover, Barroso remarked that a new EU Treaty could also be agreed without specifying the exact number of MEPs for each country.

In the meantime, calls are growing for member states to submit the new treaty to a popular vote. An FT/Harris poll, published on 18 October, found that between 60 and 80% of citizens in the EU’s five biggest member states are in favour of holding a referendum.

In the UK, a new cross-party campaign was launched to support a vote on the Treaty. The "I Want a Referendum" campaign was launched recently with a simple message: "We think that regardless of whether you are for or against the Constitutional Treaty, people should be given the right to a say which they were promised by all the main parties at the last election."

In the European Parliament, Liberal MEP Andrew Duff said that the Italian demands on the distribution of Parliament seats was "impossible to meet" if the principle of degressive proportionality was to be upheld. He added that on this particular issue there was a need for "ingenious and creative thinking". 

On the same issue his colleague Elmar Brok (EPP-ED) said he would sympathise with the Italians, but insisted: "A ceiling is a ceiling."

MEPs are particularly concerned about appointing the new permanent Council President and the High Representative for foreign policy, who will at the same time be Vice-President of the Commission, before of the European Parliament elections in June 2009. EU lawmakers argue that appointing them as early as 1 January 2009 would mean bypassing voters and weakening the European Parliament.

Socialist Group leader Martin Schulz said: "The EU cannot go on giving in to unreasonable demands. I will be calling on the heads of state and government to refuse demands for countries that are out-voted to be able to delay EU decisions under the so-called Ioannina compromise of 1994."

Having finalised the technical details, legal experts from the 27 member states presented a new version of the EU Reform Treaty earlier this month. The fresh draft translates the mandate on institutional reform, agreed by EU heads of state at their June Summit, into a legal text, which will amend the existing treaties.

EU leaders are confident of coming to an agreement at the informal summit in Lisbon on 18-19 October and few of the remaining political issues seem set to pose insurmountable obstacles.

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