EU Nations to Set Aside Constitution Plans for Another Year

The EU nations discussed Saturday setting aside their ill-fated constitution — rejected a year ago by voters in France and the Netherlands — for another year and to build confidence in European integration and the bloc's ambitious expansion plans.

"Europe is a model all over the world and we should draw some self-confidence from that," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said as he arrived at the meeting to discuss the bloc's future.

The EU faced a crisis of confidence a year ago, when French and Dutch voters rejected a European constitution designed to reorganize bloc's decision-making and raise its profile as a global player by establishing an EU president and foreign minister.

Meeting at a 900-year-old Roman Catholic monastery outside Vienna, the ministers debated the future amid signs they will extend a one-year "period of reflection" by another year while putting off a final decision of the constitution, which must be ratified by all 25 nations to take effect.

"We won't agree on the destiny of the EU constitution here," said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

The foreign ministers are to recommend a course of action to the EU leaders who meet in mid-June. One idea was for the leaders to issue a manifesto restating the principles and values of an increasingly united Europe — ideally in 2007 when the EU marks its 50th anniversary.

"We should take some time to get it right," said Geoff Hoon, Britain's secretary of state for Europe. Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot suggested the reflection period be extended by another year.

Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, said the leaders should set a timetable for reviving the constitution by 2009 at the latest.

One task at hand is to convince ordinary Europeans — skittish about their jobs, crime rates and cultural identities in an age of globalization — that closer integration and bringing in half a dozen or more states into the EU is a good thing.

Europeans, opinion surveys say, generally support the EU — and even the idea of a constitution — and but want the bloc to focus more on their day-to-day concerns such as crime, unemployment, immigration, social injustice and globalization.

A recently released Eurobarometer survey found that 63 percent of EU nationals favor a constitution. Support rose seven points — to 67 percent — in France since the referendum and by nine points — to 62 percent — in the Netherlands. Eurobarometer commissioned polling agencies to question 24,924 people across the EU in face-to-face interviews between Oct. 10 and Nov. 5, 2005. No overall margin of error was given.

A touchy point remains the EU's rapid enlargement, begun after the meltdown of communism in Europe in 1989.

In 2004, the EU absorbed Cyprus, Malta and eight East European nations. Romania and Bulgaria are to join next year, swelling the bloc to 27 countries.

Croatia and Turkey are negotiating entry and half a dozen Balkan states, plus Ukraine and Moldova, are knocking on the door. Austria has proposed to lock the door for a while after Romania and Bulgaria join.

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.