A EUROPEAN Union summit turned increasingly rancorous yesterday as governments battled over the first constitution for the expanded bloc and a new chief for the European Commission.
The EU heads have expressed confidence that they can finally reach a deal on the long-disputed constitution, six months after their last bid collapsed.
But hopes for accord on a successor to Romano Prodi as president of the influential EU executive appeared less rosy, after a late night of haggling on Thursday left them no closer to settling on a name.
“I understand that over dinner last night they suffered a degree of indigestion,” European parliament speaker Pat Cox told reporters yesterday.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has the unenviable task of chairing the summit as holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, forecast a fight to the finish.
“It’s going to be a long day.”
The last attempt to agree on a constitution in December failed after a battle over voting rights in the EU, which is holding its first summit since welcoming 10 new members on May 1.
The key sticking point remains voting rights, despite attempts by Ireland to tease out a compromise formula.
Mr Ahern sounded optimistic yesterday. “Clearly there are still issues. But compared to where we were I think we really only have a handful of issues.”
But clashes among the heavyweights cast a long shadow.
Britain fired back at an ill-disguised jab from French President Jacques Chirac that London risked blocking the EU by its insistence on sticking to its constitutional “red lines” — such as no loss of national veto over taxation. “The British Government both wants a deal and believes a deal is possible today,” Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman said. But he added: “It was unfortunate that President Chirac chose to attack our position before the negotiations had begun.”
But the French leader remained on the offensive yesterday, after the Irish presidency unveiled a fresh package of compromise proposals on the constitution. “There are limits beyond which we can no longer go,” Mr Chirac said. “We will not agree to further dilute what has been proposed by the Irish presidency. We have to stop the backsliding.”
And tempers were clearly tested in the wee-hour talks on the commission presidency. “This has not been an amicable discussion … there’s a lot of serious bullying and arm-twisting going on,” said one summit source.
France and Germany are backing Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt to succeed Mr Prodi.
But Britain is adamant the Belgian leader is too federalist, and claimed enough support from other nations – Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Greece and Portugal – to block him. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he thought it was now clear Mr Verhofstadt was out of the race.
He also said he’d be happy for EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, to get the job after he won last-minute backing from the Centre-Right European People’s Party, the biggest group in the European parliament.