- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Leaders of 25 European countries will gather in Brussels today in a last-ditch bid to produce a constitution for the expanding European Union, hoping to resolve a bitter dispute mixing principle and raw power.

The standoff, which boils down to how much clout individual states will have under the constitution, could produce a bigger internal division for the European Union than the war in Iraq did, say analysts. As in the Iraq debate, Germany and France find themselves opposed to a bloc that includes many of the so-called New Europe states of central Europe.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who failed to patch up his differences in a last-minute summit in Berlin with Polish Prime Minister Aleksander Kwasniewski, yesterday said the two-year effort to write a constitution may fall apart at the summit, tentatively scheduled to conclude tomorrow.

Poland, the largest of 10 countries that will join the 15-nation European Union in the spring, has said it will veto the constitution draft if it is not changed.

“It could happen,” Mr. Schroeder told a German television interviewer.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said this week it would take a “miracle” for a deal to be reached before his term as EU chief concludes at the end of the year.

Jeffrey Gedmin, executive director of the American Enterprise Institute’s New Atlantic Initiative, said the impasse over voting rights “is more fundamental than Iraq.”

“This is about principles,” said Mr. Gedmin, who added that Poland, Spain and others have a legitimate complaint in the efforts of Germany and France to rewrite a deal of voting rights reached at the landmark EU summit in Nice, France, three years ago.

The major sticking point centers on the number of votes each country will have in the revamped EU Council of Ministers after expansion. A compromise reached at Nice gave both Poland and Spain 27 votes in the Council — two fewer than allotted to each of the European Union’s Big Four: Germany, France, Britain and Italy.

The formula was approved even though Germany, with 82 million people, has roughly twice as many people as either Spain or Poland.

Amid fears that the Nice system could make for institutional paralysis, the constitution, drafted by a team led by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, proposes that EU Council decisions could be approved if a majority of countries representing 60 percent of the European Union’s population votes in favor. The revision is widely seen as favoring Germany and the other major EU powers.

Spain and Poland “have benefited from a kind of privilege, I would say an anomaly, which reflects neither the reality of their population nor their GDP,” Mr. Berlusconi said last week.

Also on the agenda in Brussels are clashes over the powers of the proposed new EU president and whether the constitution’s preamble should contain an explicit reference to Europe’s Christian heritage. A last-minute compromise worked out among France, Germany and Britain apparently has defused another dispute over a European defense force and its relationship to NATO.

David Calleo, director of the European studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, said the voting rights brawl reflected deeper tensions on the Continent over the leading role taken by Berlin and Paris in the European Union’s political evolution.

Spain and Poland “don’t like the idea of a kind of Franco-German directory of Europe, so they are always ready to resist this up to a certain point,” he said, as was also the case with the Iraq war.

France and Germany angered many of their EU allies when they escaped punishment after violating EU government deficit guidelines earlier this year. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is particularly upset, as his government has taken a tough line on spending to keep its own deficit in line.

But Mr. Aznar, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, faces criticism at home for his stance on the European Union. Enrique Baron, head of the bloc of socialist parties in the European Parliament, accused the conservative Mr. Aznar of isolating Spain by focusing on a “false European-Atlantic dilemma.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Mr. Gedmin said countries such as Poland have a legitimate gripe, as their EU membership was sold to domestic voters on the basis of the voting system agreed to in Nice.

The Nice compromise “was the basis on which the new democracies have joined the EU,” he said. “And now some of the existing members are trying to … diminish the importance of the union.”

A flurry of diplomacy on the eve of the summit has produced some hope that a compromise can be reached, or at least that a final decision can be postponed on the most difficult issues.

“We are condemned to succeed,” Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament, told reporters in Brussels yesterday, “because the cost of failure would be too great to contemplate.”

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