EC President Romano Prodi's forceful statement on Jan. 6 in Dublin that integration within the European Union needs a boost after the breakdown of the constitutional summit has upped the stakes in the debate. Prodi has long been one of the strongest advocates of a new EU constitution, but in the run-up to the failed Brussels summit he made it clear that what is needed is a "good constitution" - that is, one allowing for closer cooperation in many key areas - and not merely a compromise at any price.
After a meeting with the new Irish EU presidency, Prodi suggested that he is not confident that a new constitution can be agreed on soon enough. Hence, he said, serious thought must be given to the French-German initiative that envisions like-minded countries forming a faster integrating "core Europe."
"We have to make the effort for one year together... to have a joint common decision. If we're unable to do that, then we can't wait forever. That is clear. We can't stop Europe. And there will come some day the moment in which somebody - I won't say who, because this must be open - must give an example of how to go on, because Europe cannot always move to the speed of a very slow wagon," Prodi said.
However, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said earlier that comments suggesting a "two-speed" Europe were not helping his country as it tried to resume talks on the constitution. He told the BBC recently that a "two-speed Europe" would create a lot of division. Ahern avoided open confrontation with Prodi, saying simply that he understands the commission president's reasoning. He said he would do everything to get the constitutional process back on track before the end of the Irish presidency in June.
"We're the presidency, and what we want to do is to look at this positively. We want to see if we can get broad consensus and move forward. We don't want to look from a point of failure. We don't want to look at what might happen in a few years' time. So I think for this year and at present, as regards Prodi's remarks, I understand clearly what he's saying: That if we haven't made progress this year, then people are going to start looking at other ways. I totally understand that. But from our perspective, we want to move together. We want to do that this year, and we want to get on with it now. And we'll keep the focus on that for as long as we have the presidency," Ahern said.
Ahern said Ireland has already begun unofficial consultations with present and new member state governments and will report to a summit in Brussels in March on any progress. However, he did concede that it could take more than one presidency before another summit can attempt a compromise. Many EU officials privately agree that little is likely to move before the Dutch presidency between July and December. The Irish presidency's efforts will, among other things, be hampered by the need to manage the EU's enlargement, scheduled officially for 1 May.
Much of the pessimism stems from the fear that the debate on the next EU budget for 2007 to 2013 - to be launched by the European Commission on Jan. 25 - will become linked with the constitutional talks. Germany, the leading proponent of a new constitution, is also the EU's biggest net payer. Poland and Spain, which found key voting reforms in the draft constitution harmful to their interests, will be the biggest beneficiaries of the next budget.
One indication of how difficult it will be to resume the constitutional talks for any EU presidency was the admission by Ahern that he will need to fall back on the draft constitution produced by the Convention on the Future of Europe last summer and the amendments produced by the Italian presidency after a foreign ministers' meeting in Naples in late November. In other words, in the two weeks leading up to the Brussels summit on Dec. 12 - 13, no noteworthy progress was achieved.
Ahto Lobjakas compiled this for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty