The European Union’s landmark summit to agree a first constitution was plunged into gloom almost as soon as it began on Friday as leaders stood their ground in a bitter battle over their nations’ voting rights.
A last-ditch meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to seek a way out of the impasse brought “no breakthrough, no real movement,” diplomats said.
“The positions are a long, long way apart,” Blair told reporters. “It is important to try and get an agreement. It may well not be possible.”
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who as EU president for the past six months has struggled to steer the 25 bickering present and future member states to agreement on the historic draft treaty, conceded that the deadlock over power stakes in an enlarged union could sink the whole project.
“The voting system is the obstacle that can block the whole agreement, and that is a pity,” he told reporters.
The stand-off pitting France and Germany on one side and Spain and Poland on the other could drag the two-day meeting into Saturday night, but Berlusconi said the leaders had set themselves a deadline of Sunday morning to get a deal.
The aim of the constitution treaty is to streamline EU institutions, simplify decision-making and give the bloc more say on the world stage by creating the position of an EU foreign minister and strengthening the post of EU president.
Diplomats say failure could paralyze the EU as it prepares to expand to 25 members in May with the inclusion of Poland and seven other ex-communist eastern states plus Cyprus and Malta.
Some leaders are worried that if they fail to reach an agreement this weekend, a two-speed Europe may emerge with key founders France and Germany pressing ahead alone. Pessimists say it might even be the beginning of the end for the Union.
The summiteers briefly put aside wrangling over the constitution to adopt a security strategy which is designed to make the EU a more effective actor in world affairs and prevent divisions of the sort that rocked it over the U.S. war on Iraq.
They also approved a deal clinched by its main military powers, France, Germany and Britain, on a military planning cell for crisis management operations, which was watered down during weeks of negotiation amid U.S. suspicions of its impact on NATO.
The leaders endorsed a multi-billion-euro (dollar) plan to encourage public and private investment into transport and research projects in a bid to revitalize the European economy.
But Germany and the Netherlands squared up for a fight over budget rules, with Berlin rejecting a Dutch proposal for enforcement of the regime in the European Court of Justice.
“It’s a very important issue and we want to have a result,” Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told reporters.
The Netherlands, which shares the euro currency with Germany and 10 other EU states, wants the treaty to enshrine a right of legal recourse over the application of the Stability and Growth Pact following last month’s decision to suspend disciplinary action against France and Germany over their excessive deficits.
The core of the constitution debate is how much power the four biggest states -- Germany, France, Britain and Italy --will wield and how much integration EU leaders can swallow.
Spain and Poland, the fifth and sixth biggest countries, are determined to hang on to voting rights that give them almost as many votes as the big four inside EU councils. Germany and France are leading the battle to get those rights pegged back.
Britain, meanwhile, is fighting to prevent Brussels having the final say on issues ranging from foreign policy to taxation.
Seeking to break the stand-off over voting rights, diplomats have suggested a reform that might not come fully into force until 2014. Poland is seeking to delay any decision on the vote question for several years.
The Spanish daily El Mundo said Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was contemplating a compromise deal.
But there was scant sign of that from Aznar himself. “Spain maintains its position...but naturally we are ready to study the proposals that might be made to us,” he told a news conference.