June 22, 2007

Anger at EU talks as Germany hit by Nazi jibes

Talks on a treaty to replace the European Constitution got off to an angry start last night, after Poland launched an astonishing verbal attack on Germany over its Nazi past and Tony Blair threatened to walk away from the negotiations.

European Union leaders have gathered in Brussels hoping to agree an amended form of the constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2004.

But the new form of the document is proving intensely controversial, particularly its proposals to change member states' voting weights and enshrine a "Charter of Fundamental Rights" in European law.

Many major British employers fear that the charter would give their workers new rights to strike, and Mr Blair yesterday signalled he was ready to "walk away from a deal" that gives the charter legal force in Britain.

That is one of the four "red lines" Britain laid down before the talks began. Mr Blair also said he would refuse any move to extend EU powers over UK policy in foreign affairs, criminal justice or social security.

Arriving in Brussels for his last EU summit before stepping down as Prime Minister next Wednesday, Mr Blair predicted "tough negotiations".

He said: "We have laid down four areas where we have to have significant change and we will have to see that change - it will have to be done. The four areas we set down we do need satisfied in full."

Mr Blair's insistence on Britain's demands being met "in full" infuriated other EU leaders, who believe Britain must be ready to compromise. Jose Manual Barroso, the European Commission President, yesterday said Mr Blair was not being "sensible" about the talks.

But if Britain's position is generating tension in Brussels, it is a minor row compared to Poland's spectacular rhetorical offensive.

The draft treaty would revise the EU's decision-making process with a new voting system giving countries power according to their population.

That would reduce the power of Poland - which has 38 million people - at the expense of Germany, which has 82 million. The Polish government has reacted with fury to the proposal, threatening to veto a new treaty and badly straining relations with the German government, which is chairing the Brussels talks.

As part of the escalating war of words over voting reforms, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Polish prime minister, broke the greatest taboo of the modern EU by raising Germany's actions in the war.

Poland lost 6.5 million people during the Second World War, more than a fifth of its population.

Mr Kaczynski said that death toll explains the size of his country's population today. "We are only demanding one thing - we get back what was taken from us. If Poland had not had to live through the years of 1939-45, Poland would today be looking at the demographics of a country of 66 million. Germans inflicted unimaginable injury, terrible harm on Poles, incomprehensible crimes."

Despite that painful history, he claimed, "Poles like Germans, while Germans do not like Poles".

The origins of the modern EU lie in an attempt to reconcile Germany with its wartime enemies, and even to mention the conflict is almost unthinkable to many EU officials.

Publicly, the German government did not respond to the Polish provocation. As the summit began, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said: "Each country will be taken very seriously as regards their concerns."

But privately, German officials were stunned by the verbal assault. "This just shows the character of the man," said one. Another accused Mr Kaczynski of seeking "confrontation".

Other EU nations also criticised the Poles. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, described the Polish position as "absurd" and Romania called the comments "a step backwards".

After the summit's acrimonious start, diplomats were last night resigned to the talks dragging on into the early hours of tomorrow morning.


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