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Europe faces a critical week - constitutional treaty

It has been two years since the constitutional treaty agreed by the European Union heads of government was killed off by the French and Dutch referendums. Since then, European leaders have been reflecting about the way ahead. 

Thinking is supposed to generate wisdom, but there has been scant evidence of this in the frenzied run-up to this week's EU summit. Everyone agrees on the big picture: it is clear that the EU's institutions are inadequate to deal with a club of 27 members. It is also clear that without institutional reform, it will be harder to move forward on the big issues, such as climate change, immigration, energy security and globalization. The EU has to emerge from its state of paralysis, and the time to do so is now. But no one can find a path through the forest of red lines that each member appears to have laid down. Two years on, the arguments are just as bitter, the divisions just as entrenched.

Some things have changed. There is now a new generation of leaders in the German chancellor Angela Merkel, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who will shortly be joined by Gordon Brown. With them comes a new era of pragmatism and a shared assumption that the EU's performance should be measured by the results it produces for its citizens rather than the political projects its generates for its leaders. No one is talking any more about building a federal European state, but there is every interest in making the institutions that exist more efficient. Both Merkel and Sarkozy are more Atlanticist and pro-market than their predecessors were, so they should be easier for a British prime minister to deal with.

When Sarkozy arrives in London tomorrow, just before this week's summit, not only will he be the most powerful French president to have arrived in Britain in five decades, after his presidential and parliamentary elections, he will also be the friendliest. If Tony Blair and Mr Brown have a problem with Germany's plan to make the charter of fundamental rights, which increases the rights of workers, legally binding, or with a proposal to extend qualified majority voting to criminal justice matters, depriving member states of their national veto, then the scene is set for Sarkozy to help Britain opt out of the former and opt in to the latter.

If deciding the future shape of the union was left in the hands of Britain, France and Germany, there would be few jitters about finding a way forward, even with Mr Brown, who is noticeably cooler on Europe. The leaders of all three countries want a slimmed down, amending treaty, which can be passed by parliament and avoid the political risks of another doomed referendum. But it is not that simple. None of the mechanisms for speeding up decision making in the EU, like more sensible voting rights based on population, are yet available to the leaders at this week's summit. One country's veto could stop the project in its tracks.

It is not British opt outs that have been uppermost in Merkel's mind as she prepares for the event that will crown Germany's presidency of the EU, but her awkward neighbor Poland. Four hours of talks between Merkel and Polish president Lech Kaczynski on Saturday failed to achieve a breakthrough on the Polish campaign to unpick a deal that would accord EU countries votes based on the size of their populations. Poland, a country with half of Germany's population, is proposing a voting system based on the square root of each country's population. This would give it six votes, to Germany's nine. It has prompted some Poles to embrace the bizarre rallying cry: „Square root or death.” This has cut little ice in Germany, and yet a Polish veto threatens to derail the whole proceedings. If any dispute demonstrated the need to reform the EU, it is this one. The EU can ill afford another two years of contemplation, and Poland, which is currently getting more money from the EU than postwar Germany did from the Marshall Fund, should realize this. (