"Like-minded countries" meet in Prague to discuss EU Constitution

Foto: Comisión Europea

A group of 15 members and soon-to-be members of the European Union met in Prague on Monday, for informal talks on the future of Europe. The club of "like-minded" nations - from Portugal on the Atlantic to Estonia on the Baltic - had been summoned to the Czech capital to discuss ways of tinkering with the draft EU Constitution - a document many of them believe is weighted too much in favour of the EU's big boys. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron reports.

Photo: European Commission
Monday's meeting was hosted by the Czech Foreign Ministry's State Secretary for European Affairs, Jan Kohout. Mr Kohout was the Czech government's representative on the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body which drew up the draft Constitution. The Czech Republic and fourteen other "like-minded" countries say they're not 100 percent happy with the draft, and are clubbing together to try and change it. Observers have seized upon this as proof of a schism between big countries and small ones: the Washington Post spoke of "a new dividing line" in Europe. Nonsense, says Jan Kohout:

"There is no wish to make any dividing lines, even in the field of European defence. The common goal is to have a more democratic, transparent and efficient European Union, where both legitimacies coming from the European people and from the European states must be balanced, and that's our goal. Otherwise we feel that the European architecture will not be functional."

And Jan Kohout is not alone in believing the Prague meeting has been blown somewhat out of proportion.

"It's something which is maybe very sexy, because it's easy to understand and seems logical. But I don't think it's the reality."

That's Lukas Macek, advisor to Senator Josef Zieleniec, who was also on the Convention. Lukas Macek says there is no straightforward schism - not yet anyway - between big countries and small ones over the EU Constitution. But what does he make of efforts to tinker with the draft? Well, he says small changes can and should be put forward by the smaller countries when the next stage of discussion - the inter-governmental conference or IGC - gets underway in a few weeks' time. But he believes making more ambitious claims - particularly asking for the "one country, one commissioner" system to be retained - is asking for trouble:

"I think it's not realistic to keep this rule 'one country, one commissioner', and I think we should rather look for some improvements, some precisions. For instance, let's be precise about what exactly will be the job of the non-voting commissioners. What will be their position within the Commission? These are - in my opinion - realistic claims, and I think smaller countries and maybe the bigger ones should focus on them. Not on reopening this debate over 'one country, commissioner'."

In truth the group of "like-minded" countries have little weight to throw around when the IGC meets to hammer out the details. The big countries want that process to take six months at the most, in time for expansion in May 2004. It's the big countries that pay for the EU, and they - by and large - call the shots. The shots they are calling sound something like this: "It took 18 months to come up with the blueprint for the future of Europe. We're not about to spend the next six months tearing it up."