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Europe

EU Constitution Summit Fails

EU Leaders failed to work out differences over a new constitution for Europe on Saturday, despite a last-ditch effort by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for a compromise over voting rights.

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Warsaw and Madrid were unable to see things Silvio's way.

Berlusconi, current holder of the EU presidency, was unable to avoid the scuppering of the talks designed to pave the way for a new EU constitution. “Unfortunately there was complete disagreement as we dealt with the topic of the voting system,” he told a press conference after the talks collapsed. “Unity in this question at the current time is not possible.”

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels this weekend had made little headway on the first day of the summit. At the heart of the dispute is the reluctance of Poland and Spain to accept newly weighted voting rights in the draft text, which would greatly reduce the influence of the two countries.

Berlusconi said earlier he would present a number of compromise suggestions, but had warned if the leaders failed to accept them all of the work the Italian EU presidency had put towards approving the constitution could be in vain.

The new constitution is supposed to prepare the EU for next May when it expands from 15 to 25 members. Most observers consider the bloc’s current institutional setup as too unwieldy and inefficient. Besides ending the rotation of the EU presidency amongst the national governments, the draft constitution aims to streamline the EU Commission and decision-making.

Warsaw and Madrid both object to how the proposed constitution would curtail smaller countries’ voting rights in the EU council of ministers. The 2000 Nice treaty gave Poland and Spain 27 votes each, only two less than much more populous France and Germany. The new constitution would change that and require a so-called double majority: Decisions would have to be approved by a majority of countries representing 60 percent of the EU’s population.

Berlin and Paris play hardball

Germany and France have refused to give in on the matter and said they would rather postpone adoption of the entire document until a later date rather than approving pieces of it.

Talks between German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller on Friday morning failed to make any headway in the matter. On Saturday, Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz renewed Warsaw’s threat that Poland might walk away from the summit. “If there no chance for deal today we should wait,” he told the Reuters news agency.

Gerhard Schröder applaudiert

Gerhard Schröder

Schröder has warned Germany’s eastern neighbor that torpedoing the constitution over the voting rights issues would not look good for Poland, one of 10 countries slated to join the EU next May. "One cannot want to become a new member of the EU and begin this membership with a veto," Schröder said earlier this week.

How the EU will now proceed on the matter of the constitution is unclear. The Irish government, which takes over the EU presidency from Italy in January, has expressed concern over having the constitution debate spill over into its term. But Berlusconi has pointed out that no major EU project has been pushed through within a single presidency’s six-month term before.

Although a deal could still be struck in the coming weeks, the six founding EU members showed after the collapse of the summit that there could be another alternative to a constitution for all 25 countries.

France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, which formed the European Coal and Steel
Community in 1951 later to become the European Union, have declared their determination to move ahead with greater integration. That could mean a Europe of different speeds is created, where a core of states take the lead on deeping their political ties, as other remain more loosely associated.

French President Jacques Chirac said a group of pioneer states would push Europe forward "faster, further and better."

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