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EU Presidency Sees More Active Thinking on Constitution
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Member states of the European Union (EU) are moving from "silent reflection to more active thinking" over the EU Constitution, said Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen late Thursday.

Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been holding bilateral consultations with other EU member states plus Bulgaria and Romania, which are set to join the union on Jan. 1, 2007, Vanhanen told a mid-night press conference at the end of the first day of the EU summit.

"My impression is that the atmosphere among member states has developed from silent reflection to more active thinking," he said.

The bilateral consultations were confidential, he said, adding his country would prepare a report on the consultations toward the end of Germany's EU presidency.

The German presidency ends on June 30, 2007.

He said the leaders generally agreed that institutional reform entailed by the constitution is still needed and that the current text should not be thrown away to get everything started from scratch.

Most member states want to retain as much substance of the constitution as possible, said Vanhanen.

The EU constitution has been ratified by 18 countries, but was rejected by France and the Netherlands in referendums in 2005.

The EU is facing a dilemma: the current text cannot be put to referendum in either France or the Netherlands; yet the text has been approved by 18 other member states, which see the text as one package.

Vanhanen said the EU still wants to conclude negotiations on the constitution by the end of 2008.

The heads of state and government of the 25-nation bloc also focused their Thursday discussions on EU enlargement.

They believed that enlargement has benefited the union both politically and economically, said Vanhanen.

But at the same time, the leaders stressed the need for the acceding countries to fully comply with the accession criteria.

"It was strongly underlined that the pace of accession depends on acceding countries' ability to comply with the rules. The criteria must be strictly adhered to."

The leaders stressed that no new criteria should be set. "The union is not setting new obstacles. We are not closing any doors," said Vanhanen.

Jose Manuel Barroso said "new consensus" is emerging among member states on enlargement.

He said EU enlargement should be based on 3 Cs -- consolidation, conditionality and consultation.

The consolidation of EU institutions is essential as decision-making is becoming more difficult with enlargement, he said.

On conditionality, he said the EU cannot lower its standards. "All criteria have to be respected."

Barroso said enlargement should be a "democratic decision," which needs the support of the general public. National leaders have to explain to their people why EU enlargement is important for the bloc.

The EU leaders, who continue their summit meeting on Friday, are expected to discuss justice and home affairs policies, particularly illegal immigration.

A comprehensive policy package, including the encouragement of legal immigration from Africa, is expected to be endorsed by the leaders, said a European Commission official on Thursday.

(Xinhua News Agency December 15, 2006)

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