Angela Merkel, German chancellor, on Tuesday rolled out the red carpet for Europe’s most Eurosceptic leader – Czech president Václav Klaus – as she launched a two-month mission to save something from the wreckage of the EU constitution.
To some EU diplomats, the unflashy Ms Merkel is ideally suited to ending more than five years of wrangling over a new treaty and to coming up with the outline for a new text at a summit in Brussels in mid-June.
Holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, Ms Merkel carries the clout of being head of Europe’s biggest member state, and possesses a low-key charm and a head for the kind of policy wonkery needed to steer weeks of tortuous negotiations.
Her task is to persuade 26 other EU member states to agree on the thrust of a new treaty, intended to modernise the Union and give it a more powerful voice in the world. She wants it ratified by the spring of 2009.
Although the French presidential elections complicate her calculations, the main elements of Ms Merkel’s strategy are taking shape, according to EU diplomats interviewed by the Financial Times:
■Avoid referendums. French and Dutch voters killed the original constitution in referendums in 2005. Ms Merkel wants a text so modest it can be ratified in national parliaments, side-stepping hostile or apathetic public opinion.
Ireland is almost certain to have a poll and Denmark would follow if the lawyers said the new treaty transferred sovereignty to Brussels. But for other countries it is a political calculation of whether a new treaty crosses what EU officials call the “referendum threshold”.
After this week’s meeting between Tony Blair, British prime minister, and Jan Peter Balkenende, Dutch prime minister, it is clear the Anglo-Dutch threshold is particularly low and could become the benchmark.
They said a new text should be a modest “amending” treaty, focusing on updating the EU’s rules and institutions and shorn of its “superstate” ambitions. “The Dutch and the UK positions are very close on this,” Mr Blair said.
■Give the constitution a new identity. The name will change and controversial trimmings, such as an official EU anthem, flag, motto and holiday, will be axed.
A charter of fundamental rights is likely to be stripped out of the new treaty and put into an annex. Most of the sprawling section containing details of the EU’s policies and consolidating past treaties could also be put to one side.
■Win over the Czechs and Poles. At a summit in Berlin last month Ms Merkel went to great lengths to schmooze the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic, who are sceptical about further European integration and anxious that a new treaty will give extra voting power to Germany at the expense of medium-sized countries.
Ms Merkel does not want to reopen a debate on votes, nor is secular France likely to agree to Polish demands for a reference to God in a new treaty. But she may be able to offer the Czechs and Poles a new clause referring to energy security – code for EU solidarity if Russia turns off the gas again.
■Add some new bits to appease the 18 countries that have already ratified the original constitution, many of which are furious that the text is being watered down.