EU leaders consider constitution’s future

European leaders are meeting in Brussels today to discuss what to do with the European constitution following its rejection by France and the Netherlands last year.

The council of ministers agreed at that time to have a “period of reflection” to consider the implications of the referenda results. This is now over but there is no sign of any agreement, and today’s meeting is likely to result in an extension of this period.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is among those pressing for the constitution to be revived, and a dozen countries have already ratified it. The UK, however, has put a planned referendum on hold and there is strong opposition to it from many in Britain.

Following a meeting with Tony Blair in Paris last week, French president Jacques Chirac said the two men had agreed “we should extend the period of time we have allowed ourselves to think about how to go forward”.

But he insisted this did not mean nothing would be done – France is proposing a new look at how the existing institutions within the EU work, in particularly in dealing with the new challenges of enlargement.

Currently, the institutions and the way commissioners and votes on the European council are allocated are governed by the 2001 Nice treaty. But this limits membership to 27 countries, which will be reached with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria.

A new treaty would be required for further enlargement, for example to include Turkey, while many believe some kind of document consolidating recent changes to the union is necessary.

However, the rejection of the constitution by the French and Dutch last summer halted the whole process – the question is now whether to revive it, reject it altogether or cherry pick certain aspects and introduce them one by one.

In February, Mr Blair said: “We will need to return to the issues around the European constitution. A European Union of 25 cannot function properly with today’s rules of governance.”

And in April, former Labour minister and Blair ally Peter Mandelson said the draft EU constitution “does contain the elements of future and necessary constitutional change, but I don’t think people are ready yet to adopt, let alone rush to embracing it, at this stage”.

Liberal Democrat leader in Europe Graham Watson warned that some kind of constitutional treaty was required to improve accountability in the union, including opening up the secret council of ministers meetings.

“But it is also time to recognise that the 16th and final member state likely to ratify the constitution in its current form is Finland which leaves us with two options – renegotiation or oblivion,” he said.

“The sooner we take steps to make structural and substantive improvements to that text and address public concern, the better.”

However, during a debate in the Strasbourg parliament yesterday, East Midlands Conservative MEP Roger Helmer warned it would be “pig-headed” to progress with a treaty that had been rejected by the electorate.

“Press ahead with the EU constitution if you must, but be warned. You are fuelling public resentment which will blow the European construction apart,” he said.