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Europe

EU Leaders Begin Crucial Summit

EU leaders are meeting in Brussels for their first summit since the bloc's enlargement. They'll be attempting to agree on a constitution for the EU and considering candidates for the next European Commission president.

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Irish PM Bertie Ahern is offering a constitution compromise package

European leaders are hoping they'll have better luck when they try to agree on the EU constitution the second time around. Six months ago, talks on the constitution collapsed amid arguments over the member states' voting powers.

Today, thanks to efforts by the EU's Irish presidency to work out a compromise package on the main sticking points, the member states are closer to agreement. "A result is possible," said Klaus Hänsch, one of the European Parliament's two representatives negotiating the constitution with the EU's Council of Ministers. "On Monday, it was once again obvious that all delegations had a strong will to reach agreement."

At the December summit, both Poland and Spain blocked the agreement over fears that the proposed new voting system would give too much power to the most populous countries. To meet their concerns, the EU's presidency has proposed modifying the "double majority" voting principle. Instead of requiring the support of 50 percent of member states making up 60 percent of the population, the new draft sets the figures at 55 - 65 percent.

In addition, the new draft proposes a minimum of six seats per country in the European Parliament -- a move aimed at reassuring smaller EU countries who fear their voice would be lost in the 732-seat assembly.

Presidential candidates

Another of the main issues for the summit to resolve is who will replace Romano Prodi as president of the European Commission in November. For many, the selection procedure is as complicated as that used by the Vatican to choose a pope. The range of names made public has been narrowed down over the past few months. One of the top choices is rumored to be Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who has the backing of France and Germany, the EU's traditional powerbrokers.

Other matters up for discussion are the size and function of the European Commission, as well as its powers to enforce the euro-zone's budget rules. Talks also continue to be animated by the question of whether or not to mention Europe's Christian heritage in the constitution's preamble. Eight countries led by Poland and Italy want to have a reference to Europe's religious heritage in the preamble; France and Belgium are opposed to any reference.

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