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September 24, 2017

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EU's complex 'simplified treaty' may still fall short

After a decade spent trying to overhaul its governance, the European Union has finally agreed on a reform meant to last a generation, but the outcome was so convoluted and bitterly fought that it may leave enduring scars.

Provided the deal clinched before dawn on Saturday is ratified, the 27-nation bloc will finally get more coherent leadership, a single voice on the world stage, a more democratic decision-making system and more say for national parliaments.

Two years after French and Dutch voters rejected a draft EU constitution, plunging the Union into a crisis of confidence and legitimacy, the show is back on the road — sort of.

For the agreement was so complex, with the key voting reform delayed until 2017, and the arguments were so raw, with Poland invoking World War Two to demand more weight compared to Germany, that there was little European spirit on display.

"As a European, allow me to be embittered for the spectacle I find myself in front of," said Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, a former president of the executive European Commission.

"In many years, I have never seen with such painful clarity the existence of two Europes: one, of the majority that believes and wants to move ahead, the other, that pursues a reduction of the role of the European Union as a national political objective," he told La Repubblica newspaper.

The long but relatively readable constitution was turned into a short but complex document amending two existing treaties, designed to be incomprehensible to citizens.

"We made a real effort to be opaque," one senior negotiator boasted. Several countries — notably Britain, France and the Netherlands — had insisted the result must look nothing like a constitution to avoid having to hold a referendum, he said.

Another ratification accident seems less likely with only Ireland certain to hold a plebiscite, but there could still be more wrangling among member states in formal treaty negotiations later this year, given the murky deal reached with Poland.

The agreement means that from 2009, the EU will have a long-term president of the European Council, and a foreign policy "high representative" in charge of its diplomacy, aid budget and external relations staff.

That will give Europe a face, a voice and — in Henry Kissinger's apocryphal phrase — a telephone number, although the ability to project a coherent policy will still depend on whether member states can agree on the issues.

As the 2003 Iraq war demonstrated, when the big European powers are divided, Europe loses its voice.

More EU decisions, notably on justice and home affairs where progress has been painfully slow, will be taken by majority vote instead of requiring unanimity, although Britain won the right to opt out.

But the other key reform salvaged from the wreckage of the constitution — the double majority voting procedure — will take far longer to come into force.

To win the assent of Poland's ruling nationalist Kaczynski twins, German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded an eight-year delay in full implementation of the system requiring 55 percent of states representing 65 percent of the EU population to take most decisions.

The Poles also won an indefinite extension of a mechanism allowing groups of states just short of a blocking minority to delay a decision by up to four months for further negotiation.

It may be hard to explain to Europeans why, if it was so vital to reform the undemocratic voting procedure in the 2000 Nice Treaty, it will take another 10 years before the simpler system takes effect.

"The difficulty in reaching agreement between 27 countries underlines the need for a revised treaty," said Graham Watson, leader of the centrist liberal group in the European Parliament.

"EU integration will continue to be driven by developments in the outside world rather than idealism from within."

The other uncertainty after Saturday's deal is over how much lasting damage will result from the bitter Polish rhetoric and tough German negotiating tactics.

There was widespread dismay among other EU leaders, even among fellow newcomers in central Europe, over the Kaczynskis' decision to invoke the victims of the Nazi German invasion of Poland to justify extra voting power for Warsaw.

Some diplomats said Berlin and other west European countries could make the Poles pay a price when the EU budget comes up for a mid-term review next year.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU's longest-serving leader, observed that no European leaders had been more supportive of Poland's EU accession than the Germans.

The EU was built as the way to overcome historical divisions, not to perpetuate them, he said.

Merkel's threat to press ahead with the treaty negotiations without Warsaw's assent if need be struck a raw nerve in Poland.

Ultranationalist deputy prime minister Roman Giertych accused her of ordering the Poles to put their hands up ("Haende hoch") as Nazi German soldiers had done in wartime. And Miroslaw Orzechowski, a lawmaker from the League of Polish Families, a junior coalition partner in the Polish government, said despite the delay the new voting system created "a German hegemony in European relations."

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