- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

BRUSSELS — A landmark summit meant to agree on a first constitution for a European Union expanding beyond the former Iron Curtain collapsed yesterday when leaders failed to bridge wide differences over members’ voting rights.

Spain and Poland blocked plans to give big countries, led by Germany and France, more voting power in a system that would take greater account of population size.

The impasse plunged the wealthy 15-nation bloc into a crisis, five months before it is due to admit 10 new members — mainly formerly communist states — in the biggest expansion in its history.

“Sadly, the disagreement was total when we moved to the voting system,” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told a news conference after cutting short two days of tough wrangling when he saw no compromise was acceptable.

French President Jacques Chirac called for smaller “pioneer groups” of countries to forge ahead with closer integration in defense, economic policy and justice, but denied this would lead to “segregation” or second-class Europeans.

“This will provide an engine, an example, that will allow Europe to go faster, further, better,” Mr. Chirac said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, his closest partner, took a similar line: “If we don’t manage in the foreseeable future to reach a consensus, then there will emerge a Europe of two speeds. That would be the logic of such a final failure.”

The breakdown capped a year in which Europeans were bitterly split over war in Iraq, EU budget rules were bent, Sweden voted against joining the euro and Britain delayed indefinitely a referendum on the same issue.

But Mr. Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sought to play down the impasse.

“To look at this in apocalyptic terms is rather misguided,” Mr. Blair said. “I think, ultimately, it will be resolved.”

The leaders avoided open recrimination in the aftermath of the breakdown, but that truce seemed unlikely to last.

Mr. Berlusconi declined to blame Spain and Poland, pointing instead at the tough positions of Germany, France and Belgium.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who will step down next March, and Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who attended the talks in a wheelchair after fracturing his spine in a helicopter crash last week, were unrepentant at having defended their national interests.

The leaders set no date for resuming the negotiations and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said serious talks were unlikely to resume until the first half of 2005.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who takes over the rotating EU presidency next month, said he would hold consultations and propose a way forward at the next regular summit in March.

Refusing to be downcast, Mr. Berlusconi said virtually all the constitutional treaty had been agreed on and negotiations would not have to resume from square one.

The existing Nice, France, treaty will continue to apply with its complex weighted voting system, but many governments fear growing complications once the bloc expands into Eastern Europe to a total population of 450 million.

The row stemmed from the Nice agreement in 2000, which gave Poland and Spain nearly the same voting rights as Germany, whose population is about twice the size of each.

A convention of lawmakers and national representatives led by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing proposed a reform whereby most decisions would pass if backed by a majority of EU states representing 60 percent of its population.

European Commission President Romano Prodi, speaking for many supporters of European integration, said the failure to agree was a blow, but preferable to a weak constitution.

European Parliament President Pat Cox said the growing EU was “ill-equipped with today’s treaties to meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

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