Cowen urges 'patience' over EU constitution

Foreign Minister Brian Cowen today appealed for “patience and determination” to secure a European constitution deal as planned in mid-June.

Foreign Minister Brian Cowen today appealed for “patience and determination” to secure a European constitution deal as planned in mid-June.

After two days of fraught talks between EU foreign ministers in Brussels, he admitted there were differences on a wide range of issues but insisted: “I remain confident that we will get this job done.”

The pressure is on Ireland, in the EU presidency, to meet the deadline – or see the constitution talks collapse for a second time.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been on a tour of key EU capitals, and frantic behind-the-scenes efforts are going on to turn the draft constitution into a document EU leaders can agree when they meet on June 18.

Nothing in the latest round of negotiations between EU foreign ministers raised hopes though, and with less than four weeks before the deal is due to be done, no-one was betting on the outcome.

As the ministers left Brussels with little sign of progress, Mr Cowen pointed out the meeting was the first ministerial session on the constitution in five months.

“There are some new people around the table. Obviously nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and it is very important for the foreign ministers to get a collective insight on these issues.

“This is a helpful and necessary process we are engaged in. We need patience and determination.

"That sort of atmosphere is there in the room and I am happy that we are making progress.”

Earlier, UK foreign secretary Jack Straw once more set out the British government’s “red lines” in the talks, insisting that the right of national veto must remain in EU decisions on taxation, foreign policy, social security, defence and the euro-budget.

But there was no repeat of yesterday’s clash when France and Germany accused Mr Straw of trying to “salami slice” the draft document, watering down its contents, particularly on the scope of a Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Today, instead of salami, the banter was about mosquitoes, which briefly invaded the negotiating room.

As they buzzed irritatingly around the room, Mr Straw suggested they were anti-British mosquitoes.

German foreign minister Joschka Fischer countered that they were in fact pro-European.

As with all the other issues under discussion, there was no final agreement.

It was clear that the UK was far from alone in defending the principle of unanimous voting on taxation and social security.

But in other areas most member states want to move to more “qualified majority voting” under the constitution to ensure the new 25-nation EU does not grind to a halt.

Today’s talks also covered the future size of the European Commission and on the relative voting power of each member state – the stumbling block which scuppered the last attempt to agree the constitution.

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