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EU foreign ministers discuss new EU treaty

European Union foreign ministers gathered in Luxemburg on Sunday evening to try to iron out differences over a new treaty that would replace the failed EU constitution.

The ministers are making preparations for the EU summer summit next week. Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, hopes to reach agreement on an „amending treaty” at the summit so that EU’s institutional reform can go ahead. German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a daunting task to bridge differences between two camps: the „maximalists” - the 18 member states which have already ratified the constitution - and the „ minimalists,” led by France, the Netherlands and Britain.

The EU constitution, signed by all member states in 2004, was vetoed by French and Dutch voters in 2005, putting the bloc into a period of reflection, which ends at the end of June 2007. The maximalists, led by Germany, want the substance of the constitution to be maintained in the amending treaty, while the minimalists want the new treaty to be different enough so that the text does not need to be put into referendums again.

The constitution provided for institutional reforms to make EU’s work more efficient by setting up a permanent EU president instead of the current rotating presidency, and the introduction of majority vote in the bloc’s decision-making council of ministers. Institutional changes were deemed necessary as the union was enlarged from 15 to 25 member states in 2004. Poland, which joined the EU in 2004, is particularly opposed to the proposed majority vote scheme, fearing that populous countries like Germany would dominate decision making in the union.

The Czech Republic’s euro-sceptic leaders have similar fears. They are also not happy with Merkel’s „roadmap” for a new treaty in 2009 as Prague will assume the EU presidency in the first six months of the year. Britain is concerned about the inclusion of the EU charter of fundamental rights, which it fears may affect its labor laws. It also has fears that a new treaty would give Brussels too much power on criminal justice matters. The member states are also expected to wrangle over whether to give the EU the status of a „single legal personality,” which means the EU can join international organizations.

Merkel stepped up efforts in recent days to try to bridge gaps between member states. She met Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Saturday and hosted Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek before traveling to Luxembourg for talks with Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. New French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who championed a „ simplified treaty,” will meet outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown on Tuesday. (