updated 6/18/2004 7:38:11 PM ET 2004-06-18T23:38:11

European Union leaders agreed Friday on the first constitution for the reunited continent, spelling out the voting system and nations’ rights for the bloc’s 25 members but keeping out any reference to God, officials said.

“It is a great achievement for Europe. It is a great achievement for all Europeans,” said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose nation holds the EU presidency.

Leaders adopted the constitution about an hour after receiving the final translated text. They then toasted the historic charter with champagne.

“For Europe to come to an agreement at 25 (members) on the new rules that should govern Europe for the future is indeed truly historic,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

But leaders put off the selection of the new president for the EU’s executive Commission because of continuing disagreement, EU spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said.

The deal on the constitution comes about six weeks after the EU added 10 new members, mainly former Soviet bloc nations, to increase its membership to 25.

Leaders had hoped for a deal Friday to boost the EU’s credibility in the eyes of a skeptical public, a week after an electoral drubbing and six months after their last attempt collapsed in acrimony over voting rules and other issues.

“Better late than never,” French President Jacques Chirac said. “Thanks to this new treaty, we will have a more efficient Europe, a Europe that responds better to the needs of our citizens and a Europe that holds a greater weight in the world.”

The European UnionThe constitution aims to streamline the EU’s complex institutions and boost its image on the world stage by creating an EU foreign minister. Fearing gridlock in the expanded club, the document also aims to curb areas where individual countries can veto decisions.

The final text resolves one of the most bitter disputes — the voting system — by requiring that a measure can only pass if approved by at least 15 countries representing 65 percent of the bloc’s 455 million people.

A measure could only be blocked if vetoed by at least four countries with 35 percent of the population — another safeguard to prevent the biggest countries from running roughshod over the rest.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose country was among those fighting hardest for the interests of smaller countries, said he was satisfied with the compromise.

Britain also was satisfied that it preserved its veto over taxation, defense and foreign policy and gained guarantees that a sweeping charter on fundamental rights would not allow European courts to challenge British labor laws, which are more restrictive than those elsewhere on the continent.

Britain was also pleased with an “emergency brake” allowing it to challenge majority decisions on cross-border criminal matters and social security measures for migrant workers.

Some nations plan referenda
All 25 EU member states must formally ratify the treaty within two years before it can take effect. Several governments, including Blair’s, are planning a referendum.

Blair must overcome claims by treaty opponents that the document will erode Britain’s sovereignty, and he must convince a largely Euro-skeptic British public that it is in their interests.

Still, British Minister for Europe Dennis McShane was optimistic.

“I’m confident the British people will not vote to reject Europe when the facts of the constitutional treaty are presented to them,” he said.

Outgoing European Parliament President Pat Cox, who is Irish, also had high hopes.

“If we can agree it, we can sell it,” he said.

Leaders remained deadlocked, however, over who should become the EU’s new chief executive, illustrating some of the differing conceptions on what the EU is and where it should be going.

While some see the union primarily as a trading bloc with limited cooperation in other areas, federalists, notably France and Germany, envisage deeper integration of foreign, fiscal and defense policy to give the EU political clout on par with the United States.

The early contenders for the post of European Commission president, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, belong in the latter camp.

At the height of tensions over the Iraq war, they joined France and Germany in proposing a separate EU military headquarters. The plans angered London and Washington, which feared a weakening of trans-Atlantic bonds.

Blair, backed by Italy, Greece and Portugal, rejected Verhofstadt as “too federalist,” Blair’s spokesman said Friday.

No reference to Christian traditions
Despite last-minute lobbying from Pope John Paul II, a reference to Europe’s Christian traditions did not make it into the text — something Spain, Poland and several other countries sought, several diplomats said.

“At a moment when a new order is being born in old Europe, Spain cannot fail to bring forth among its many contributions the express manifestation of its Christian roots,” John Paul said in a Vatican City meeting with Spain’s ambassador.

France and others say this would violate the principle of separation of church and state.

Instead, the constitution’s preamble says Europe draws “inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe,” and freedom of religion and the role of churches in society are mentioned elsewhere.

“It’s a very big pity and hard to understand,” Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said.

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