Does it all have to be so complicated?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor It has been a quiet year for the EU after the trauma of 2005 when the voters of France and the Netherlands turned the elitist dreams of a constitution into a nightmare.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

It has been a quiet year for the EU after the trauma of 2005 when the voters of France and the Netherlands turned the elitist dreams of a constitution into a nightmare. But next year could be much livelier.

After 18 months of bemusement and sulking, the pro-constitution camp is beginning to show signs of new confidence and resolve. Clear evidence of that emerged at the EU summit in Brussels recently when the 18 member countries that have ratified the constitution announced they will be holding their own summit in Madrid in January to try to revive it.

This was a big surprise for German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country takes over the EU presidency on January 1. She had been busy preparing her own plan for dragging the constitution back from the dead, and announced that she wanted every EU country to appoint a special representative to help negotiate a way towards a solution to the crisis by the end of 2008.

This was not sufficiently positive or fast, however, for the new group of 18. In addition to their own gathering in Spain, they are intent on inviting the dissenting or non-ratifying seven - including Britain as well as France and the Netherlands - to a follow-up meeting in February.

This was bound to be considered provocative by people in the other camp. Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende lost no time in emphasising that the plan "should not be allowed to gather momentum". And the move was certain to cause serious ripples in France where a presidential election is to be held in April.

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It could badly complicate the campaigns of the front runners, Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Both of them are fundamentally committed to the EU, as is almost obligatory in the French political establishment. And after the shock of the referendum result both go to considerable lengths to avoid being pinned down on the subject of the constitution.

Mr Sarkozy has, however, come out broadly in favour of a 'mini-treaty' embracing parts of the constitution that could, perhaps, be approved and implemented without further referendums. Ms Royal is more elusive. But can that continue? Won't a French electorate that voted by roughly 55pc to 45pc against the constitution demand that she makes her position entirely clear? Won't it further stipulate that any new attempt to secure the constitution should be conditional on endorsement in a referendum?

It is not only the French electorate that the pro-constitution 18 need to be mindful of. The Dutch electorate voted 'No' by a larger margin - roughly 61pc to 39pc. And neither of these countries has generally been considered to be at the Euro-sceptic end of the spectrum. How big would the 'No' vote have been in Britain or in Denmark?

Tony Blair will soon cease to be prime minister, and it is highly probable that his successor will be Gordon Brown, who has long been seen as less of a Euro-phile than he is. Would the chancellor actually be willing to back any major move towards the adoption of an EU constitution without putting it to a referendum in this country? The question seems to answer itself. Mr Brown would surely recognise that such a step would take some beating as a means of making his premiership a very short one. And one has to assume he is not much interested in committing political suicide.

It might be concluded that the pro-constitution forces inside the EU still don't understand the level of hostility to the document that exists in some of the countries that have not signed up to it. But perhaps they do because it looks as if a central part of their strategy may be to secure their objective by stealth and in stages - thereby avoiding referendums which, as has been seen, can go horribly wrong and fail to deliver the desired answer.

If they are to proceed in such a fashion they will, of course, confirm the worst suspicions of those who believe EU-philes to be engaged in an endless conspiracy to create a European super-state in which national sovereignty will be lost.

Does it have to be like this? Does the proposed constitution have to run to hundreds of pages and have key sections that can be interpreted - by design one supposes - in radically different ways? Why can't it be as succinct as the US constitution? Why canit be composed in such a form that everyone can be confident it will do exactly - and no more than - what it says on the tin?

Are the EU big cheeses capable of producing such a text? Would they want to? These questions, like the main one on the constitution, virtually beg for a negative response.