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EU constitutional talks collapse

The European Union’s effort to seal its first-ever constitution collapsed Saturday, after leaders could not agree on the best way to divvy power once the bloc adds 10 new members next year.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addresses the media on the second day of meetings at the European Summit in Brussels on Saturday.Philippe Wojazer / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The European Union’s effort to seal its first-ever constitution collapsed Saturday, after leaders could not agree on the best way to divvy power once the bloc adds 10 new members next year.

The key stumbling block was a proposal to scrap a complicated points system that was accepted in 2000 and gave Spain and newcomer Poland almost as many votes as Germany, which has twice as many people as either. Talks will be taken up again sometime after March of next year.

“It has not been possible to reach agreement on all points,” Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair said. “Countries are going to need some time to find a point of common accord.”

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who had refused to accept a revised voting system, was leaving early to consult with his government, his main foreign policy adviser, Tadeusz Iwinski, said.

Italy, chair of the summit, had discussed several compromises during bilateral meetings Saturday, but never garnered enough support for any of them, diplomats said. Ireland takes over the EU presidency next year.

“We were a little too optimistic,” Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said, noting that leaders were only handed the text 10 weeks ago. “Let’s sit down and use the days of Christmas and I hope that with a new spirit the Irish presidency (next year) will restart negotiations.”

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he would report to the next EU summit in March about progress in bilateral contacts with member states before recommending when the EU leaders meet again to take up the draft constitution.

Struggle over final declaration
Diplomats said leaders were struggling over lunch to agree on a final declaration, with France, Germany and other constitution-backers threatening to issue their own pro-integration statement.

Such a public airing of differences would be almost unheard of at EU summits.

The crisis raised questions whether the vision of a closely integrated Europe — championed by France and Germany — is shared by others, especially incoming members from the former Communist east only now enjoying genuine sovereignty after decades within the Soviet bloc.

The draft text supported by France and Germany would allow EU decisions to be made by a simple majority of EU nations if they represent 60 percent of the EU’s population of 450 million. The constitution must be approved unanimously by all 25 governments.

Backers of the proposed new voting system, led by Germany and France, say the changes will make the voting system simpler and more democratic.

Those revisions, along with others in the draft constitution, were intended to streamline decision-making to prevent gridlock when the 15-member EU takes in 10 new members, mostly from the former communist east, in May.

Poland — the biggest of the 10 newcomers — along with Spain objected most vociferously to the proposed change. The Spanish and the Poles insist the new system would entrench the power of the four EU heavyweights — Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

“If it’s not possible to agree, we shall wait,” Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said Saturday morning. “We’re talking about compromise or domination.”

A French diplomat accused Poland of being “intransigent.”

Future of EU at stake
Germany, the bloc’s biggest member, said the future of the EU was at stake. “This is not about national interests,” Bela Anda, spokesman for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, told reporters.

The summit began well Friday, when leaders put aside their differences over the constitution and agreed on a plan to boost the EU’s military capability, with or without the NATO alliance.

They also endorsed a global security document and approved a $75 billion investment plan for dozens of public works and research projects.

Police guarding the summit opened fire Saturday on a car that crashed at high speed into a barricade protecting EU headquarters, injuring two suspects accused of snatching a woman’s bag on a nearby street before fleeing in the car.

Police spokesman Christian De Coninck said police fired two shots at the car as it plowed through the barricades sealing off the area around the EU summit venue.

The car was later found abandoned near the EU building and two suspects were detained, one with a bullet wound in the arm, the other cut by glass splinters, De Coninck told reporters.