EU nations hope to reconnect with citizens

A year after Dutch and French 'no' votes all but doomed the EU's draft constitution, governments are launching a campaign to persuade their citizens of the merits of closer integration while keeping their wounded charter on ice for one more year. EU foreign ministers perhaps seeking divine inspiration gather for a two-day "future of Europe" session Saturday in a 900-year old Augustine monastery outside Vienna. The French and Dutch rejections in 2005 suspended a constitution that was to accelerate the EU's inefficient decision-making and raise its profile as a global player by establishing an EU president and foreign minister.

A one-year "reflection period" since the French and Dutch referendums has shown that Europeans generally support the idea of a constitution, but want the EU to focus on their day-to-day concerns such as crime, unemployment, immigration, social injustice and globalization. Foreign ministers plan to propose steps on these issues to EU leaders, who hold a summit next month while leaving the draft constitution sidelined, perhaps for another year.

Austria, which holds the EU presidency, also wants EU meetings to be public except those dealing with sensitive issues such as foreign, defense, justice or immigration matters. The state of the EU is not as dire as it looked a year ago.

A recent Eurobarometer survey found 63 percent of EU nationals favor a constitution. Support rose seven points to 67 percent in France since the May 29, 2005, referendum and by nine points to 62 percent in the Netherlands which voted less than a week later. A touchy point, however, remains the EU's rapid enlargement begun after the meltdown of Communism in Europe in 1989.

The EU absorbed Cyprus, Malta and eight East European nations in 2004. Romania and Bulgaria are to join next year. Croatia and Turkey are negotiating entry and half a dozen Balkan states, Ukraine and Moldova are knocking on the door. Several EU nations, notably the Netherlands and Germany sensing public resistance to further expansion want the EU to commit soon to final borders. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn warns against that, saying expansion is about shared values, not geography, and is unfinished business from the Cold War.

The view from the EU head office is that further expansion is achievable but only if the EU enacts internal reforms even without the constitution the EU leaders finalized in June, 2005. The constitution must be ratified by all EU nations. Its aim is to provide for simpler decision-making by ending national vetoes except in foreign, defense, social security, taxation and cultural policies. The president would be elected by EU leaders for a five-year term.

The charter has been ratified by the parliaments of 13 nations: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia. Finland is expected to ratify it in the second half of 2006. The charter has been approved in two referendums Spain and Luxembourg and rejected in two: France and the Netherlands. The ratification process has been suspended in Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Portugal and Sweden.

The way forward is fuzzy. Austria and some others still like the charter. Germany wants it updated to provide for more social protection. France and Belgium want a "hard core" of nations to enact it. The British are largely against the charter, reports the AP.

N.U.