Image: Koehler and Chirac
Marcus Brandt  /  AFP - Getty Images
German President Horst Koehler, second from left, welcomes France's President Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette at Bellevue Castle in Berlin on Saturday. European Union leaders from 27 member states have gathered to celebrate the bloc's 50th anniversary.
updated 3/24/2007 7:27:12 PM ET 2007-03-24T23:27:12

German Chancellor Angela Merkel challenged her fellow European leaders on Saturday to back a fundamental renewal of the European Union, seeking a way out of deadlock over the bloc’s stalled constitution.

Speaking in Berlin before a summit to celebrate the EU’s first 50 years, Merkel said leaders had to send a clear message to the EU’s 490 million citizens on where the union was headed.

“The people have the right to know how we imagine a renewed European Union, one that is capable of action,” Merkel said in a pre-summit broadcast.

Germany holds the EU’s rotating presidency and is leading efforts to end a two-year hiatus in Europe’s drive for closer unity. French and Dutch voters rejected the draft constitution in 2005.

Merkel hopes to rekindle popular support with a clear statement of the EU’s achievements — from removing trade barriers to bolstering democracy in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Eastern Europe.

The summit marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome by six core countries of what was called the European Economic Community.

Merkel told reporters she was confident the 27 EU governments could overcome their deep differences over the EU’s future by 2009, when a revised EU treaty would be ratified by all member nations.

However, many see the schedule as overambitious given the level of division over how much of the deadlocked constitutional treaty should be saved.

Germany and Italy want to preserve much of the substance of the original text, while the Dutch insist that a new treaty must be significantly different. The Poles and British are wary about any changes that shift power from national capitals to EU headquarters, and the Czechs are opposed to setting a date for concluding the new treaty.

There is also public concern over the membership ambitions of Turkey, Albania and Ukraine, which many in the West see as a threat to wages and welfare systems. Ten former Communist nations joined over the past three years.

Those fears have added to disillusionment with the EU among citizens who often see it as a distant and overbearing influence on their lives, particularly in countries of Western Europe. For many younger people there, the EU’s record of overcoming wartime rivalries and developing postwar economies no longer resonates.

Substantive talks on the constitution are unlikely to get under way until after the French presidential election in April.

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