German Chancellor finds no common ground on EU constitution in Prague

Angela Merkel, photo: CTK

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Prague on Friday to try and revive talks on the European Constitution agreement. The ratification process was put on hold after the document was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands. Germany now holds the EU's rotating presidency and its main goal is to resume discussion. But Ms Merkel did not get the support she needed in the Czech capital:

Angela Merkel, photo: CTK
The Czech Republic is among the EU member states that are most critical of the proposed European constitution. With the exception of the Social Democrats, the country's political parties have reservations about the document. And, in the four hours that Angela Merkel spent in Prague on her first official trip as Chancellor, she did not succeed in changing that view.

European citizens need a document that is "simple, comprehensible, and clear", Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek reiterated after his 45-minute meeting with his German counterpart. While Ms Merkel hopes the document could still be amended if every member state voiced its reservations, Mr Topolanek says the EU needs an entirely new constitution. A view echoed by Czech President Vaclav Klaus after having dinner with Ms Merkel at Prague Castle. A European constitution, says the Czech President, has to clearly separate the national spheres from those of the Union; the current one does not.

Mirek Topolanek and Angela Merkel, photo: CTK
Clearly expecting tough negotiations, Ms Merkel said all member states needed to pull in the same direction if the Union is to work. The daughter of a protestant priest noted that the fifteenth-century Czech Hussite movement never gave way and that the Czech President had clearly inherited their philosophy. Speaking to journalists, Mr Klaus said that Ms Merkel had compared him to the Hussites, who fought every inch of the way for what they believed in. However, their views on the European Constitution are not inches but miles apart, he added. To ease the tension, Mr Klaus said despite the different opinions an effort ought to be made to move forward in small steps.

Germany will hold the EU presidency until the end of June. By then it hopes to have completed a list of focal points for future debate on the draft European Constitution. This week, negotiators from member states will engage in discussion, the results of which are to be drawn up in a declaration on March 25. So far, eighteen countries have ratified the document. Two more, Portugal and Ireland, are expected to join the group. For the remaining countries, the main bones of contention are mostly the individual states' voting rights, the make-up of the European Commission, and the proposed creation of the post of European Foreign Minister.

Berlin would like the European Constitution to be ratified by all EU 27 before the elections to the European Parliament in 2009. Coincidentally, in the first half of that year, it will be the Czech Republic that will be presiding over the Union.