Germans and Poles at odds over EU constitution

Posted in Europe | 15-Jun-07 | Author: Dan Bilefsky and Stephen Castl| Source: International Herald Tribune

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel reflected in a glass window in the Bundestag on Thursday.

BRUSSELS: Poland and Germany clashed Thursday over how to revive Europe's stalled constitution amid growing signs that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was unwilling to accept Polish demands to maximize its power in an expanded European Union.

A document circulated ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers ignored completely Warsaw's main demand in the negotiations: that the EU revamp its proposed new voting system.

Merkel warned that reaching agreement would be a "Herculean task," and Poland indicated that it might block the new treaty, which must be approved unanimously by the 27 EU members.

"We have a chance to approve the road map" on how to move forward with the treaty, though "road map is too simple a word for such a Herculean task," Merkel told lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament in Berlin. "We have a chance - no more, no less."

Merkel has been engaged in intense diplomacy to rally support for a slimmed down constitution following the rejection of the charter in France and the Netherlands two years ago. Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, is hoping to get agreement on a new document at a summit meeting in Brussels next Thursday and Friday, with the aim of completing negotiations by December and ratifying the document in mid 2009.

But EU officials said Poland's opposition remained the biggest hurdle to a revamped constitution, which is meant to streamline EU decision-making and improve the international standing of the group by creating a foreign minister and a permanent president.

Warsaw has repeatedly threatened to veto talks on a new charter unless member states agree to narrow the gap in the weighting of votes between larger and smaller countries.

While the document that was circulated Thursday underlined Germany's refusal to consider reopening the debate on the voting system, it did offer one potential concession to Warsaw. The paper referred to calls for "the need to address energy security," implying that Poland might gain a pledge of support from the EU that it could invoke were Russia to interrupt gas or oil supplies.

Britain is the other main opponent, and it won limited concessions, including a discussion on dropping the name "constitution" and the formal adoption of symbols of the EU, like its flag. But there was no concession on London's opposition to moves to abandon national vetoes on justice and home affairs issue.

Germany is also resisting British calls to dilute provisions in the charter that spell out citizens' rights and to drop a provision allowing the EU to sign international treaties.

Diplomats see the draft text as an opening gambit and acknowledge that the most sensitive issues will have to be resolved by heads of government at the summit meeting next week.

But the argument with Poland is seen as the most intractable. Under the system advocated by Merkel, EU countries would have votes according to the overall size of their populations, a system that favors larger countries like Germany. Under the Polish proposal, voting power would be based on the square root of each country's population. That means that Poland, with 38 million people, would have six votes in the EU council of ministers, the body where EU governments make decisions, compared with nine votes for Germany, which has twice as many citizens as Poland. The formula has prompted some Poles to embrace the rallying cry "Square Root or Death."

On a recent trip to Brussels, the Polish prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, warned that the voting system advocated by Germany would transform Poland from one of the most powerful states in the group to one of the weakest. On Thursday, President Lech Kaczynski of Poland, the prime minister's twin brother, reaffirmed Warsaw's opposition. "We are ready for a compromise, but not for a system that sharply lowers the ranking of Poland in the EU," he said after meeting with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Warsaw.

EU diplomats hope that Poland will not risk isolating itself in the EU by rejecting the constitution - a move that would deeply embarrass Merkel, undermine the EU's credibility as a whole and risk plunging the bloc into crisis.

Yet Poland, the largest of the eight ex-communist states that joined the EU in May 2004, has proved in the past to be one of the most awkward and unpredictable members of the group.

In a style reminiscent of the former conservative prime minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, the Polish president and prime minister have both stubbornly defended national interests and refused to compromise on issues ranging from state aid for the country's struggling shipyards to resistance to adopting the euro, the EU's single currency. Relations with Russia, Poland's ruler during communist times, have also been tense.