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EU seeks to clinch deal on institutional reform
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European Union (EU) leaders meet in Lisbon on Thursday and Friday to try to agree on the text of a draft treaty after years of debate over institutional reform of the 27-nation bloc.


At the informal summit, hosted annually by the incumbent EU president in autumn, national leaders will look at the Reform Treaty prepared by the intergovernmental conference (IGC) according to the guidelines set out by the leaders after a marathon meeting in June.


The treaty will replace the controversial Constitutional Treaty, which was signed by EU states in 2004 but was permanently frozen after French and Dutch voters gave it a thumbs-down in 2005.


The new treaty, hammered out by EU legal experts earlier this month, is expected to make the EU's decision-making mechanism more efficient yet more democratic, and to accelerate integration in Europe. The EU's successive enlargements in recent years have made the body increasingly difficult to run smoothly.


Time to move on


"We need the EU to speak with the single strong voice to deliver global leadership. We need more efficient and democratic decision-making to deliver policy results that benefit our citizens," Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, said Wednesday.


"We need to put this institutional debate behind us. We have spent six years discussing the institutional architecture. It is time to move on," he said.


After two years of reviewing the fate of the EU constitution, and months of intense negotiations among member states since the beginning of this year, Barroso believes the current draft treaty "is the best deal that is on offer."


"There are no reasons, no excuses not to solve this issue this week," he said.


Treaty revised


Unlike the constitution, which was meant to replace all earlier EU treaties and start afresh, the Reform Treaty is designed to amend the Treaty on the European Union (the Maastricht Treaty) and the Treaty Establishing the European Community (the Rome Treaty).


It also scraps all reference to EU symbols - the flag, the anthem and the motto, and shies away from any phrase which smacks of "a European Superstate." Hence the title "constitution," which is loathed by many skeptical EU citizens, is dropped.


However, the new treaty retains many of the changes the constitution attempted to introduce. They include:


- a president of the European council who would serve a two-and-a half-year term. This would replace the current system of a rolling six-month presidency;


- an EU higher representative for foreign and security policy. This would combine the jobs of foreign affairs chief Javier Solana and External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner;


- reducing the size of the European Commission, from 27 commissioners to 18, from 2014;


- introducing double majority rule for Council decisions in 2014: proposed EU legislation requiring a qualified majority needs to muster the support of 55 percent of member states and of 65 percent of the EU's population. But, in a concession to Poland, member states will be able to invoke the old system until 2017;


- a redistribution of voting weights between the member states, phased in between 2014 and 2017;


- new powers for the European commission, European parliament and European court of justice, in areas such as justice and home affairs;


- the removal of the national veto in a number of policy areas.


Put simply, the new treaty is widely seen as having preserved the main substance of the constitution.


Sticking points


Squabbling over the new treaty never seems to end. Poland, Britain, Italy and Austria are among those member states which have their own issues.


Poland, which holds elections on Oct. 21, wants a future EU voting mechanism that would allow EU decisions to be frozen temporarily when a minority of member nations disagree.


Poland, which claims that the new treaty would give bigger member states more leverage than before, said the decision-blocking mechanism, or the Ioannina clause, should be written into the treaty. Until now it is written in a declaration which has no legal standing.


London negotiated complex opt-outs on police and judicial cooperation and from the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Poland also chose not to be bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights.


Italy disputes a decision on how EU parliamentary seats should be distributed. According to the new rules, Rome's seats should be cut from 78 to 72 in 2009, the biggest drop among member states.


Austria, which complains about a big influx of German students in its medical schools, demands certain limits on the number of foreign students who could be enrolled in its universities.


Fate of treaty unknown


Although there are still points to settle, some EU officials are optimistic about the prospect of a successful summit.


French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday that all the differences among member states are minor and EU leaders will conclude the meeting within 30 minutes.


But others are more cautious. They say that it is not uncommon for member states to raise new demands in the eleventh hour and capsize the boat.


Even if the draft is approved at this meeting, the Reform Treaty will not be signed right away, said Portugal, which holds the EU presidency. The informal meeting is just an opportunity for heads of state to see the results of legal work carried out on the treaty over the autumn.


Hopefully, it will be signed by member states at the formal summit in Brussels in December.


After that, the treaty needs to be ratified by each of the 27 member states before it becomes a legally binding document. EU leaders want the treaty in place ahead of next European Parliament elections scheduled for 2009.


(Xinhua News Agency October 18, 2007)

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