Financial Times 27.05.2006, Page 2, Europe Ed1
'Period of reflection' ends with EU no wiser on treaty REJECTED CONSTITUTION
Exactly one year after France threw the European Union into turmoil by voting Non to the union's constitution, EU foreign ministers will concede tomorrow they still have no idea how or whether to revive the half-dead treaty.
Ursula Plassnik, Austria's foreign minister, admitted in an interview with the Financial Times that the year-long "period of reflection" which followed the French vote on May 29 last year has failed to clarify the situation.
"Now is not the moment to come to a definite decision," she says. Her fellow foreign ministers, meeting in the cloistered seclusion of a monastery near Vienna, are expected to endorse that conclusion.
Ms Plassnik, the host of a two-day "future of Europe" meeting at Klosterneuburg, will instead propose that the EU instead gets on with the task of delivering on policy objectives including energy, research and controlling migration.
She said the club could also work better under its existing rules, particularly in areas such as foreign affairs and the fight against cross-border crime.
Ministers will also discuss plans for an EU emergency response force to deal with disasters but not one that would duplicate national efforts. "We don't want double structures," she said.
Ms Plassnik will also propose increasing transparency by televising legislative sessions of EU ministerial council meetings.
"People expect Europe to produce results and to ensure and develop the European way of life," she said.
The Austrian EU presidency is expected to pass responsibility for settling the constitutional dilemma to the next four countries in the six-monthly "musical chairs" rota: Finland, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia.
With the constitution on hold and a final decision on Romanian and Bulgarian accession to the EU deferred until the autumn, some diplomats say the Austrian presidency will end next month with a whimper.
Ms Plassnik bristles at the suggestion and says a failure to agree what to do with the constitution was not "due to a lack of imagination". "I'm not going to let the Austrian presidency be criticised for a lack of activity," she said. "We have been working hard."
Austria has finalised the EU's seven-year budget and is close to a deal on a law to liberalise Europe's market in services, but Ms Plassnik says the real success has been to calm the atmosphere after a 2005 of "fights and panic attacks".
The presidency has created a convivial air through a series of genial events such as Mozart concerts, ski weekends and football matches, prompting some to claim it has been more style than substance.
But Ms Plassnik says: "For me the really important thing was to keep the 25 members together. That sounds non-spectacular but it's very important."
Ms Plassnik wants to use this weekend's meeting to address the issue of EU enlargement, keeping the door open to the countries of the western Balkans while acknowledging that future extensions of the club - especially to Turkey - should consider the union's "absorption capacity".
While Austria is sceptical about Turkish EU membership, the Balkans are on Vienna's doorstep.
"We know membership for these countries is not for tomorrow but the perspective of membership is an essential motor for reform in the region," she says.
Serbia (and Kosovo), Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania all have the prospect of eventual EU membership, while Croatia has started membership talks.
Ms Plassnik says ministers will not try to define the future boundaries of the club but will discuss its capacity to absorb new members.