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Europe

EU Constitution Has 55 Percent Survival Chances

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said he was "55 percent optimistic" European leaders would agree on the EU draft constitution this week.

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Silvio Berlusconi, left, and Gerhard Schröder discuss the upcoming EU summit.

Speaking to reporters in Berlin after a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Berlusconi said on Sunday that the upcoming European Union summit on the first ever constitution has a slightly better chance of success than failure.

The Intergovernmental Conference, which takes place on Friday in Brussels, has been pitched as a "do-or-die" meeting as time runs out for European leaders to find a compromise on the draft constitution before the historic expansion of the bloc to include 10 new countries in 2004.

Berlusconi’s statements in Berlin were only slightly more optimistic than his prognosis on Saturday, in which he said there was a 50-50 chance of an agreement. The Italian leader, who has been keen to see the Constitution finalized before he hands over the helm to Ireland at the start of the year, warned that it would be a "grave mistake to seek to wrap up (the summit) at any cost."

Final countdown

On Monday EU foreign ministers hold a final negotiating session in an attempt to further narrow differences before Friday’s summit starts. The dispute over voting powers in EU decision-making remains the main stumbling block with Spain and incoming member Poland fighting to hold onto weighted voting as agreed to in the Nice Treaty in 2000.

Germany and France, backed by a majority of present and future member states, are pressing for a reform of the voting system to take greater account of population size. The current disproportionate voting powers awarded at the EU summit two years ago gave Spain and Poland 27 votes each compared to 29 for the largest states including Germany, which has more than twice their population.

Schröder und Aznar, Deutsch-spanische Konsultationen

Schröder and Aznar agree to disagree on voting powers -- here at a press conference in Berlin on Nov. 4, 2003.

On Sunday, Schröder told Berlusconi he had no intention of budging on his country’s opposition to Spain and Poland’s position.

Voting obstacle

The issue of voting powers is such an acrimonious one that it threatens to derail the entire Constitution process.

Drawn up by a Convention of national representatives headed by former French President Valery Giscard d’Etaing, the draft Constitution proposes a "double majority" voting system in which most decisions would pass if backed by a simple majority of states representing 60 percent of the population. But Spain and Poland, population-wise considerably smaller than the three big EU power-players, Germany, France and Britain, are under enormous pressure at home to fight for weighted voting which would give them a bigger say in EU affairs.

EU diplomats have said there is little chance of a shift to a reformed voting system of the kind called for in the Constitution. The remaining bargaining chips in the draft -- the number of seats on the European Commission and in the European Parliament -- are considered insufficient to persuade Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller to back down from their demands.

Berlusconi, whose job it is to find a compromise, has called the Spanish-Polish voting power an "anomaly," which needs to be reformed. But the Italian leader, who has openly hoped to end his much-criticized six-month presidency on a positive note, said he was prepared to hand over the problem to his successor Ireland rather than accept a watered-down Constitution.

Giscard, too, has said it would be better to have no constitution than a mutilated one. An ineffective charter could lead to "the gradual falling apart of the European Union," he warned.

(written based on wire reports)

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