EU ministers predict plain sailing for Treaty summit

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EU foreign ministers voiced optimism that the last stumbling blocks to an agreement on the new Reform Treaty could be overcome at a crucial summit in Lisbon this week, with diplomats even considering adding new items to the agenda in order to keep leaders busy.

Meeting in Luxembourg on 15 October in preparation for the summit meeting, the EU’s 27 foreign ministers said an agreement on a new Treaty was now a near certainty. However, a few remaining snags still need to be sorted out, including: 

  • Poland’s insistence that a decision-blocking mechanism known as the “Ioannina Compromise”, which allows for a country to significantly delay key decisions even if it does not have enough votes to block them, be included in the Treaty. Other member states have objected due to fears that what is currently an exception to the rule could become a common procedure, preventing the EU from making any major decisions in the future; 
  • Italy’s unhappiness with the new distribution of seats in Parliament, which would cause it to lose its voting parity with France and the UK (EURACTIV 12/10/07). Italian Prime Minister and former Commission President Romano Prodi has given assurances that his country would not attempt to block the Treaty, although it might insist on keeping the seat distribution plan out of the text; 
  • Sofia’s last-minute demand that the European currency be spelt ‘evro’ in the Bulgarian version of the Treaty. Despite the European Central Bank’s opposition to alternative spellings of the euro, Bulgaria may get its own way; and; 
  • Austria’s appeal to formulate the Treaty in a way that would not prevent it from capping the number of foreign students signing up to its universities after a recent flood to its medical schools, mostly by German students.

None of these issues are however considered serious enough to block the approval of the Treaty at the Lisbon summit. “We know there are some political issues that can be brought up”, said Marine de Carné, spokesperson for the French permanent representation in Brussels, who admitted that “there is a Polish problem”. But she suggested that these should be overcome relatively quickly following legal discussions at expert level in the IGC. 

“We hope that discussions will last about hour and that we can open the champagne”, she told EURACTIV.

The Portuguese prime minister, José Socrates, has circulated a letter to heads of state outlining topics for discussion concerning the external aspects of the EU’s Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs after the agreement is sealed.

Nevertheless, once a deal is struck among leaders, the text will still need to be ratified by all 27 member states – a process which could include risky referenda in a number of countries.

Indeed, although Ireland is the only country which is constitutionally bound to a popular vote, other countries, and most notably the UK, are under pressure to give their citizens a say on the text. 

"There is no reason at all why we should not be confident that at the end of this week we will have an agreement," Portuguese Minister for European Affairs Manuel Lobo Antunes said after foreign ministers had discussed the draft on 15 October. 

As regards Italy's demands to separate negotiations on the Treaty from those on the composition of the European Parliament, Antunes remained vague, saying: "I don't have a final ideal. I cannot anticipate what the solution will be," but added: "The Portuguese presidency, when it has a task, likes to fully complete that task". 

On Bulgaria's euro spelling demands, he commented: "We believe those are the citizens' aspirations. The solution that we will try to find for Bulgaria will have this perspective." 

At the same time, he stressed member states' understanding of Austria's student problem but said that the Treaty was probably not the best place to resolve this issue, saying: "We encourage the European Commission and Austria to find a solution to this problem." 

As for Poland's demands, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn suggested a solution was near: "If we move just one more millimeter in Poland's direction, the issue will be solved." He added: "One possibility would be to put Ioannina in a protocol, which could be changed without having to take apart the whole treaty." 

Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga said: "I am very optimistic. There is just a small step towards an agreement." 

As UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced fresh attacks from the Conservative opposition and MEPs, British foreign minister David Miliband defended the Labour leader's stance, saying: "People will see that the British national interest has been very clearly defended." 

Legal experts from the 27 member states finished translating a political mandate, agreed by EU heads of state at their June Summit, into a new draft Treaty earlier this month (EURACTIV 8/10/07). 

The finalised text now awaits the approval of EU leaders at an informal summit in Lisbon on 18-19 October. 

With legal issues ironed out, the only remaining uncertainties are political, notably with Poland preparing for early parliamentary elections on 21 October. 

  • 18-19 Oct. 2007: Heads of state and government are expected to agree on the final text of the new EU Treaty at an informal summit in Lisbon.
  • 21 Oct. 2007: Poland holds early parliamentary elections. 

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