The EU's Constitution Controversy

Liberals in the European Parliament have nixed a plan by Spain and Luxembourg to exclude France and the Netherlands from a constitutional confab

The Liberals in the European Parliament have strongly rejected a plan by Spain and Luxembourg to hold a restricted "friends of the EU constitution" meeting, saying the move carries the "serious risk" of dividing the union.

The criticism comes after last week's invitation by Spain and Luxembourg to the Europe ministers of only those 18 EU countries which have ratified the constitution to a private meeting in Madrid on 26 January.

Spain and Luxembourg deliberately excluded France and the Netherlands, which rejected the charter in popular referendums in 2005, as well as seven other states which subsequently suspended ratification, from the Madrid meeting - and invited them only for a second gathering open for all EU states in Luxembourg in late February.

"The initiative of Spain and Luxembourg carries the serious risk of dividing the union. To hold a conference only for those who have ratified the constitution threatens to gang up on the refuseniks," said Liberal constitutional spokesman and UK MEP Andrew Duff.

Calling for the meetings to be "cancelled," he went on to say that they are "hugely undermining the efforts of the German presidency, whose duty it is to come up with proposals to renegotiate the 2004 constitutional treaty."

Germany, which will chair the EU for six months from 1 January, has been tasked to design a "road map" at the end of its presidency to find a way out of the constitutional limbo created by the French and Dutch "no" votes.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Tuesday (19 December) gave a cautiously positive reaction to the Spanish-Luxembourg move by saying he understood the wish of the pro-constitution states to meet separately.

Meanwhile, Spanish and Luxembourgish diplomats defended their initiative, with one Spanish contact saying that it is designed "precisely to help the German presidency to collect the positions, to help to find a way out."

"It is difficult to think that this will divide the union," he added.

But divisions over the restricted invitation already emerged when it was circulated at an EU leaders' summit last week, with Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende warning the institutional debate in the EU should remain "controllable."

French president Jacques Chirac meanwhile played down the importance of the Spanish-Luxembourg plan, saying the constitution is a matter for the German presidency.

Spain and Luxembourg are the only two countries which ratified the EU constitution by referendum, with 77 percent of Spaniards and 56 percent of Luxembourgers voting "yes" to the document.

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