Scraps make for heavy EU soup

The action takes place behind closed doors, as hordes of journalists are surrounded by mountains of croissants but starved of information.

This is the reality of EU summits, a struggle for scraps of news that emerge from huddles of reporters surrounding a diplomat.

From the edge of the huddle the diplomat is invisible and usually inaudible – if you have one you dangle a furry microphone on a pole over the speaker’s head.

The scraps of quotation gathered are then passed from one journalist to another – and sometimes they tell subtly different stories.

A Danish representative is quoted saying, “We have succeeded in saving the constitution almost completely intact.”

Private dinner

But the message from the British prime minister’s spokesman is that whatever comes out of the negotiations will be completely different from the constitution – this being guaranteed by Tony Blair’s “red lines”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was deliberately unexciting in her only press conference so far. There is no news, she said, but thank you for coming.

“Why are we kept in the dark?” asked one journalist. “Why can’t we attend the negotiations?”

Mrs Merkel replied that they had taken place over dinner, and people rarely invited the media to watch them eat.

“For a dinner we have given you a great deal of transparency,” she added with a smile.

So it took a while for the news to leak out that Polish President Lech Kaczynski had begun his dinner speech by stating that Poland had not lost World War II.

Mrs Merkel aside, spinning appears to be the politicians’ key preoccupation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded the German EU presidency to remove wording about free and undistorted competition from the opening paragraphs of the constitution, in its next sketch of a treaty to replace it.

Similar wording will remain 13 times elsewhere in the text, British and German lawyers point out, so it makes no legal difference.

But it makes a big difference to Mr Sarkozy, who is keen to tell French voters that the new treaty will be less slanted towards free markets than its predecessor.

British objections

The UK’s game is the opposite. It is focusing on sending the message to British voters that the treaty can be ratified without a referendum, and this is leading it to demand safeguards that some experts say are quite unnecessary.

The constitution was already hedged with British-inspired caveats, they say, ensuring that the Charter of Fundamental Rights (which formed Part II of the constitution) could not trigger challenges to British labour law.

But Britain is now insisting that the charter must not be in the treaty at all, and must not be made legally binding by other means.

Poland, meanwhile, has to come out of the summit showing voters that it has won concessions on voting weights – especially since its leaders have bricked themselves into a corner by saying that death would be better than capitulation.

They have also said that capitulation would be “suicide”, from which it follows that death would be better than suicide – which is probably true from a Catholic standpoint.

So what deal is being cooked up here?

You need to find the right huddle to get the answer.

Yes, again it’s about moving one bit of text from one part of the constitution to another – or it could be, according to a diplomat who works for the Council of Ministers.

The obscure Ioannina compromise, it seems, could be moved into the body of the treaty itself, from its position as a declaration attached to the treaty.

Hopefully that will satisfy the voters back home in Warsaw.

By Stephen Mulvey EU reporter, BBC News, BrusselsLast Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK

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