Depending on whom you listen to, it is dead, alive, taking a siesta, buried in snow, or in need of surgery after a car wreck.

The European Union's stalled Constitution may look moribund after French and Dutch voters rejected it in referendums last year, but Europe's politicians won't lay it to rest.

Despite those electoral defeats, most EU leaders believe the 25-nation bloc needs the institutional reforms in the charter to streamline decision-making and provide more stable leadership. But they are split on how to bring them about.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel will outline to the European Parliament today how he plans to take forward the sensitive debate on the future of Europe's institutions during his country's six-month EU Presidency.

Austria is due to recommend a way forward to a summit in June but Chancellor Schuessel's government is divided, and many analysts believe any progress will have to await mid-2007, when France and the Netherlands have held elections.

The Constitution provides for a long-term president of the European Council of national leaders instead of the debilitating rotating EU presidency, an EU Foreign Minister, a slimmed-down executive European Commission, a more democratic decision-making system, a bigger role for national parliaments in scrutinising EU legislation and more powers for the European Parliament.

While the EU is still in the midst of a year-long "pause for reflection" agreed last June, constitutional debate has flared with renewed vigour even before the winter snows melt.

French President Jacques Chirac, whose standing was severely dented by last May's referendum loss, said last week that parts of the Constitution could be applied using existing treaties.

He renewed a call for a pioneer group of countries to move forward with closer integration, urging a greater political role for the 12-nation Eurogroup that share the euro single currency.

The conservative frontrunner to succeed Mr Chirac, Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, suggested the Constitution should be slimmed down to a few key institutional reforms in a new treaty and put to a parliamentary vote, not a referendum.

Mr Sarkozy advocates a leadership role for the six biggest EU countries - Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose Parliament has already ratified the text, said the constitution should be kept intact and vowed to revive attempts to bring it into force when Germany takes the EU chair in the first half of 2007.

She suggested some form of declaration on the social dimension of Europe might be annexed to meet French concerns.

Chancellor Schuessel and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso voiced guarded support for the idea but noted the difficulty of finding a consensus formula on what constitutes the "European social model". Diplomats say Berlin cares most about the population-based reform of the voting system enshrined in the charter, which would enhance German power in the EU.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot summed up the fundamental problem of political legitimacy with any attempt to resuscitate the Constitution when Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik visited the countries that voted against the EU charter.

"We have discussed the Constitution, which for the Netherlands is dead," he said, ruling out any idea of tinkering with the text and resubmitting it for ratification.

Ms Plassnik had said the charter, which 13 EU states including Austria have ratified, was in hibernation, covered by a blanket of snow, and vowed to work for a political "climate change" to bring it out of the deep freeze. There is no shortage of suggestions for ways to relaunch the process: cherry-picking the key reforms; adding new texts to assuage French and Dutch concerns; amputating unpopular parts; reconvening a democratic forum to suggest changes; or dropping the appellation "constitution", which alarmed many voters.

The European Parliament will launch its own attempt to revive the Constitution this week, voting on a report that calls for a pan-European referendum on a new charter in 2009 on the same days as the next European elections.

"The Constitution is not dead, it has just been in a car crash. It needs surgery and not the cosmetic kind," said British Liberal MEP Andrew Duff, co-author of the report.

Doing nothing is not an option, he noted, since under the Treaty of Nice which now governs the EU, requires the bloc to reduce the size of the Commission once it reaches 27 member states, which will happen next year or at the latest in 2008, when Romania and Bulgaria join.

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