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EU constitution talks fail over voting system

By Associated Press
Published December 14, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium - A summit to forge a constitution for a united, post-Cold War Europe collapsed Saturday after leaders failed to agree on sharing power within an expanded European Union.

The deal-breaker was a proposal to abandon a voting system accepted in 2000 that gave Spain and incoming EU member Poland almost as much voting power as Germany, which has a population equal to those countries combined.

European leaders sought to minimize the damage, saying talks would resume next year, but the debacle leaves the EU in turmoil as it prepares for one of the greatest challenges in it 46-year history - accepting new members from the former Communist east.

The failure scuttles, for the time being, the EU's plan for a new president, foreign minister and a greater profile on the global stage to rival that of the United States.

It also raised doubts about the bloc's future direction and fears over its cohesion. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder spoke of a core group of countries pressing ahead with closer integration - a scenario others warned would divide the union.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair appealed for all to respect the "essential unity of Europe."

Blair insisted the failure would not delay the expansion in which Poland and nine smaller nations will join the bloc on May 1, expanding it from 15 to 25 members.

He said the differences could be overcome and the constitution adopted, but he suggested leaders would take at least several months before a breakthrough.

"My best judgment is it's not an impossible mountain to climb, but I can't be sure," Blair said. "I don't think there's any point to rushing this before we have the basis of an agreement."

After almost two years of preparations, the constitutional talks were sunk by the voting fight that pitted Germany and France against Spain and Poland.

The fight revealed an unusual level of public animosity among EU nations. Schroeder complained bitterly that nations "are representing their national interests and have left the European idea behind."

Warning an expanded EU could force Europe to "march to the slowest step," Chirac suggested a "pioneer group" of nations could move forward with closer cooperation on areas such as the economy, justice and defense.

"It will be the motor. It will set the example, allow Europe to go faster, better," Chirac said.

Others were dubious about such a "two-speed Europe."

"I hope that no country will take measures to try to divide Europe," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said.

A plan backed by France and Germany would replace the EU's complex, population-based voting system with a formula under which key decisions could be passed by a simple majority of 13 of the 25 members - if they represent 60 percent of the EU's population.

Spain and Poland said the proposal concentrated too much power in the hands of EU's big four - Germany, France, Britain and Italy. They want to keep a system that gives them almost as many votes as Germany, the union's biggest member.

Without agreement, the voting system adopted three years ago at a summit in the French Riviera resort of Nice will take effect when Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta join the EU in May.

However, leaders said a constitution will eventually be needed to manage the EU's affairs efficiently when it has so many members.


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