From Austria, 'new thoughts' for EU

Posted in Europe | 02-Jan-06 | Author: James Kanter| Source: International Herald Tribune

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel attends a news conference at the end of a European Union leaders summit in Brussels December 17, 2005.
VIENNA Austria plans to revive the moribund European constitution and will promote expansion of the European Union, but it will also raise a critical voice on issues like the involvement of European institutions in the domestic affairs of the 25 member states, according to Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, who took over the six-month rotating EU presidency on Sunday.

Following months of bitter contention over the Union's direction, Schüssel, 60, said Europe needed "some moments of fantasy and flexibility and new thoughts." He said he would restart efforts to draft a new constitution at an EU conference on European identity to be held in Salzburg in late January.

In an interview at his office at the chancellery, Schüssel was generally upbeat about Europe's prospects. But he warned that Turkey might never become a full member of the EU and said that the services directive, a bill making it easier for European workers and companies to offer services abroad, should be probably be scrapped and rewritten.

"We shouldn't wait too long to revive the debate on the European future," Schüssel said. He said he aimed to have a timetable and roadmap for ratification of a new European constitution ready by mid-2006, when Austria hands over the EU presidency to Finland.

French and Dutch voters rejected the previous constitution in referendums last spring, effectively killing its chances of ratification. The dense and lengthy document had been drafted by about 100 European notables headed by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president.

Schüssel called that process elitist and anachronistic, declaring, "I want to avoid a top-down approach." This time, he said, a broad spectrum of citizens including scientists, journalists and professors should contribute ideas for a new constitution.

"We should really now start again with a real European debate," he said in the interview Friday, adding that a new document could possibly be ratified in tandem with European parliamentary elections in 2009.

Although much of the current unhappiness about the EU appears to stem from the latest round of expansion, from 15 to 25 members, in May 2004, Schüssel said he would push plans to add another four members quickly. Romania and Bulgaria should be able to join the club by 2007, or 2008 at the latest, he said, while membership for Croatia and Macedonia should follow soon after.

The European Commission, the EU executive, is expected to announce in coming months whether Romania and Bulgaria have made the grade. Bulgaria in particular has "made enormous progress in fights against organized crime," Schüssel said.

Regarding Turkey, which opened EU membership talks in October, Schüssel said it deserved to be a candidate even though the outcome of negotiations toward full membership remained uncertain. "The end must be open," he said.

Many Austrians strongly oppose Turkish membership, and politicians there have proposed giving Turkey a special partnership status - an idea the Turks vehemently reject. Schüssel again raised that possibility Friday, saying, "Nobody today can decide that the only option is membership or not."

This is the second time Austria has held the EU presidency since the country of eight million joined the EU in 1995.

Schüssel, who has led the center-right People's Party for a decade, said the timing was felicitous because it coincided with the 300th anniversary of the birth of Mozart and the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud, both born in present-day Austria.

The anniversaries, he said, could serve as "a hook to make visible that Europe is not only one identity, but that European identity consists of a great variety of sounds, images, thoughts, poems, languages, cultures - even smells when you think about all those varieties of cooking."

In addition to the focus on identity, Schüssel said, a key event of the Austrian presidency will be a conference in April, in the northern Austrian town of Saint Poelten, on the principle of "subsidiarity" - EU jargon for allowing member states to keep rulemaking under local control where possible. Even as Europeans integrate their economies, it remains critical to respect sovereignty, Schüssel said.

"There are some tendencies within the European Union that can be seen with critical eyes," he said, notably "an extension of communitarian law by the European court."

The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice is similar to the U.S. Supreme Court in the way it decides how to apply federal-style laws. A recent decision by EU judges to force national treasuries to reimburse companies for tax losses outside of their home countries was among a series of "backdoor decisions of the European court" that Schüssel said served to extend EU law without prior agreement among politicians.

Schüssel also objected to a decision by EU judges to force national militaries to accept women into their fighting forces as well as a decision obliging countries like Austria to educate university students from neighboring countries.

"What is the competence of the European court to rule on these issues?" he asked. Such issues "should be agreed on a political level with political controls."

In addition, he said, the European Commission should "prepare a new services directive as the old one is so fervently criticized from all sides that it is de facto blocked."

Schüssel said political accord in Europe could be easier following the electoral victory in Germany of Angela Merkel, who is also a center-right chancellor. Franco-German relations should be "something which is moving in a positive direction, not blocking" initiatives like a new constitution, he said.

Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, often worked in tandem with President Jacques Chirac of France to protect farmers and workers, and oppose free-market reforms - such as scrapping agricultural subsidies and loosening job protections - that are favored by Britain and some East European countries.

Schüssel praised Merkel for her success in mediating between Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain last month to broker a deal over the EU budget. "In the shark's basin of the European council she did extremely well," he said.

Schüssel suggested that Austria could help break the deadlock in Europe's economic debate because it sat somewhere in between the sharply contested continental and Anglo-Saxon models.

"We Austrians have something to offer which is probably a good mixture of both views," he said. Like Scandinavians, Austrians "have a very flexible labor market and on the other hand a very safe and stable social network."