EU leaders fail to agree on next Commission president

Tony Blair, Vladimir Spidla and Cyril Svoboda, photo: CTK

European Union leaders met again in Brussels on Friday after failing to choose a new EU president in talks the day before. Brian Kenety spoke with Radio Prague correspondent A.R., who is covering the EU summit, on the Czech agenda at the talks, the likely shape of the EU Commission, and whether Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla still has a "mandate" to negotiate after his party's poor showings in the recent EU elections.

Tony Blair,  Vladimir Spidla and Cyril Svoboda,  photo: CTK
In the elections for the European Parliament held last weekend, voter turnout was exceptionally low. Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla's party did so poorly, placing fifth, that he will likely face a vote of confidence in parliament here. On the line now is A.R., talking to us from Brussels.

The main opposition Civic Democrats, who placed first in the EU elections, are saying the government has "no mandate" to negotiate for the Czechs in Brussels. So, how has all this affected the mood as EU leaders - including Mr Spidla - try to choose a president for the EU Commission?

"Well, actually, it's true that the mood at least for Vladimir Spidla, it's not at its best because at least these last elections made it clear according to all EU governments, that the bloc must get its act together fast in reforming its institutions, to get closer to the people."

"For Vladimir Spidla, he obtained the support in the Chamber of Deputies a few hours before leaving for Brussels, so he says it's legitimate for him to negotiate on the important matters - that is, the shape of the European Constitution and the successor to Romano Prodi as the head of the Commission."

"But, according to French President Jacques Chirac, the very low turnout that you mentioned for the first elections in the enlarged Europe, did not much change the mood in this summit, or at least, not as much as having to discuss and to debate with 25 EU member states. The negotiations were already complicated with 15 and they became even more so with the enlargement to include new countries."

Guy Verhofstadt,  photo: CTK
"To what concerns the Commission, the EU executive, according to the proposition that has been made by the European Union Irish presidency, it's supposed to slim down to 18 members. It will nevertheless not see its size reduced until the year 2014. And this is because some countries, especially new members like the Czech Republic, fought a long time for the principle of one country, one Commissioner."

Now Alexis, who are the candidates that the Czechs are supporting?

"Until now, the two favourites candidates - but it's rather complicated - are the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, and the British candidate, Chris Patten... "

The current EU External Relations Commissioner, Chris Patten.

"Yes. On the side of the Czech Republic, we have seen a bit of doubt, because in the press conference of Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla didn't mention any name, he didn't want to give any clue what would be his favourite candidate. But his foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda, who is close - closer, at least - to the Conservative parties that presented the candidature of Chris Patten, has said clearly that he is in favour of the British candidate."

Also under discussion are thresholds for a new voting system and the Irish presidency of the EU was expected to present on Friday a formula whereby 55 percent of the member states, representing at least 65 percent of EU citizens, would need to agree to measures in order for them to be adopted. The reason being that in the expanded European Union, there is concern it will be tougher to get things through.

 Chris Patten,  photo: CTK
So what is the Czech position on this 'Qualified Majority Voting' system?

"Well, actually, you are right; this seems to be the toughest debate during this summit in Brussels. What we can say about the Czech Republic is that Vladimir Spidla has mentioned many times that he is for parity; in favour of the parity system."

"Before leaving for this summit, Foreign Minister Svoboda mentioned that a system of 55-65 could be acceptable for the Czech Republic. But I think that right now, the negotiations really are getting deeper in some mathematical calculations and the system will likely not be the one wished for by the Czech Republic, but won't be that far off."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this interview was aired, EU leaders have agreed on the text of a new EU Constitution, which would require at least 15 of the 25 EU member states (60 percent) representing 65 percent of the EU population to agree in order for measures to pass. Both Mr Patten and Mr Verhofstadt have withdrawn their candidacies. EU Commissioner Antonio Vitorino, outgoing Europe Parliament president Pat Cox, and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minsiter remaing in the running to replace Romano Prodi as president of the EU Commission.