Enlargement backers defang Sarkozy's EU sages

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BRUSSELS, Nov 13 (Reuters) Britain and other supporters of EU enlargement have succeeded in defanging a proposal by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a panel of wise people to draw the bloc's final borders, watering down the mandate, diplomats say.

The 27-nation bloc is close to consensus on charging a group of a dozen sages next month with a broad, two-year study of the European Union's long-term role in a globalised world, avoiding controversy, in particular over Turkey's EU candidacy.

Diplomats say the remit has been substantially changed from Sarkozy's original idea that the group should consider the final borders of Europe to buttress his view that Ankara should be offered less than full membership.

Pro-enlargement countries such as Britain, Sweden and Denmark ensured there will be no mention of borders or Turkey, and no proposals for new EU institutions so soon after leaders agreed a reform treaty last month ending 10 years of wrangling.

Sarkozy toned down his demands in a speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday, saying the wise persons committee should discuss ''the final aims and objectives of Europe'', to help draw ''the face and contours of tomorrow's Europe''.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, speaking earlier in the assembly, listed a range of sensitive subjects the panel should avoid -- institutions, borders, the EU budget and enlargement negotiations.

''It should not engage ... (in) a negative debate about the geographical limits or borders of Europe. That would be divisive,'' Barroso said. The EU executive was keen to ensure the exercise did not undermine ratification of the treaty, he added.

Explaining why initially wary EU leaders had accepted the idea of a panel at all, a senior EU government leader said: ''We have to do something to help Sarkozy.'' The new French president had taken political risks by agreeing to ratify an EU reform treaty without a referendum after French voters rejected the original European constitution, and by letting accession negotiations continue with Ankara after saying Turkey had no place in the EU, he said.

''We have to help him turn the ship around,'' the government leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

NEW FACE? France has also abandoned any idea of involving elder statesmen such as ex-President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who chaired a convention of lawmakers that drafted the ill-fated constitution, or former Commission President Jacques Delors.

''We don't want yesterday's men pontificating on tomorrow's Europe, and especially not the-day-before-yesterday's men,'' one EU ambassador said.

A spokesman for the Portuguese EU presidency said consultations ahead of the December 13-14 summit were still under way and no names had been selected yet.

EU diplomats said a new face from the east European countries which joined the bloc in 2004 may play a leading role.

Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a multilingual trained psychologist who lived much of her life in Canada and Morocco, may be the only politician on the panel.

Other names in circulation included Jorma Ollila, chairman and former chief executive of Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia, a senior trade unionist, academics, intellectuals and youth representatives, they said.

Some diplomats said Britain was still stalling on the wise persons panel to secure a summit declaration strongly endorsing globalisation, as sought by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

REUTERS SKB VC1900

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