Merkel's hopes of completing EU jigsaw rise
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - One by one, the pieces of Angela Merkel's European treaty jigsaw puzzle are slotting into place three weeks before a decisive summit for the EU's future.
The German chancellor is being deliberately coy about her chances of clinching a political deal in Brussels on June 21-22 to reform the European Union's creaking institutions, replacing the EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.
A senior German official last week put the prospects of success at less than 50 percent, but one EU ambassador said the political stars were suddenly aligned for a deal.
"Impatience for a solution is mounting: there is a feeling it is both urgent and possible," he said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is convinced Merkel is well on the way to a deal with crucial help from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants a simplified treaty containing key reforms, to be ratified by parliament.
"Today we can see that a consensus is forming around this idea," Barroso said after meeting Sarkozy last week.
Under the emerging accord, the EU would get the long-term president and foreign minister -- although most likely with a different title -- provided by the constitution. It would get a streamlined, more democratic decision-making system but none of the trappings of statehood.
National parliaments and the European Parliament would have more say over EU legislation but there would be no grand preamble, flag or anthem, and the treaty would be "as short and boring and un-constitution-like as possible", one diplomat said.
A short inter-governmental conference would take place later this year to formally turn the deal into a treaty, to be ratified in time for the 2009 European Parliament elections.
New momentum from Paris after Sarkozy's election has been the critical factor in moving other pieces of the jigsaw.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose Eurosceptical electorate would be unlikely to approve any new charter, is keen for his last EU summit to produce a slimmed-down treaty that can be ratified by parliament.
His anointed successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, is seen as more sceptical about the need to change EU institutions, but diplomats say Brown would be unwise to start his term by alienating his key new European partners.
Sensing the British are gearing for a deal, the Dutch, Poles and Czechs have also toned down their demands to remove or alter key parts of the constitution.
Meanwhile the 18 countries that have ratified the charter are muting their insistence that it stand unchanged, accepting that it will be boiled down to a simple "amending treaty" provided the substance of the constitution is preserved.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende set out a series of achievable conditions in a speech to the European Parliament, including a strengthened provision whereby half of all national parliaments could send back draft EU legislation that they deemed to infringe on national prerogatives.
Merkel, who has declared the treaty to be her "Chefsache" (boss's business), has assiduously courted central Europe's leading Eurosceptics, presidents Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic and Lech Kaczynski of Poland.
There are signs of that charm offensive paying off, and Sarkozy is expected to contribute by visiting Poland in June.
Poland's EU ambassador, Jan Tombinski, told the Centre for European Policy Studies on Tuesday his country would not die in a ditch for its demand to tear up the reformed voting system, which Warsaw feels would penalise it.
The Poles have suggested replacing a system based directly on population size with a mathematical formula relating voting power to the square root of a country's population.
"We are not saying it is square root or death," Tombinski said in contrast to fighting talk in 2004 when Poland wanted to keep the existing Nice Treaty weighted voting system.
Diplomats say there are still some niggling issues that could trip Merkel up in the late stages.
Poland's ruling Kaczynski brothers may yet harden their stance again, whether out of domestic political calculations or deep distrust of Germany.
Britain is pressing to exclude the constitution's charter of fundamental rights from the treaty, while Germany and others insist on a clause giving it legal force.
London is also keen to wriggle out of an agreement it helped broker in 2004 to take more EU decisions on police and judicial cooperation by majority voting instead of unanimity. It already had an "emergency brake" provision under the constitution.
Barroso has privately floated the idea of offering the British another "opt-out", enabling other states to move ahead, as Britain has from the euro single currency and the Schengen area of border-free travel.
But senior EU officials no longer see any of these issues as show-stoppers.
"Merkel knows what she's doing and the puzzle's mostly done," one said.
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