- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

BRUSSELS — Foreign ministers of the European Union conceded defeat yesterday in their efforts to find a constitutional compromise between countries seeking greater integration and those who fear a European superstate.

Their failure after nearly two months of negotiations diminished hopes for a deal on an EU constitution despite a weekend deadline for action. The ministers said the issue was so divisive that it could be resolved only by EU leaders, who arrive Friday for a two-day summit.

“What we have left over now are the most serious issues for leaders,” said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The countries also remained at odds over how to bolster the EU defense policy without endangering security ties with the United States or trampling on some countries’ cherished neutrality.

Neutral EU nations Sweden, Ireland, Finland and Austria objected to a proposed mutual defense pledge, similar to NATO’s, stating that if one EU member is attacked, the others are obliged to provide assistance.

In a joint letter, the four said “formal binding security guarantees would be inconsistent with our security policy or with our constitutional requirements.”

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who chaired the talks, said he would revise the clause for a new proposal today.

Mr. de Villepin warned Mr. Frattini not to dilute the plan, suggesting an “opt-out” for the neutrals instead. “The solidarity as expressed in this clause must not be downgraded,” he told reporters.

The constitution is meant to streamline decision-making and reshape EU institutions to avoid gridlock after the 15-nation bloc takes in 10 new members, mainly from Eastern Europe, on May 1. It must be adopted unanimously, but Spain and Poland are threatening vetoes over new voting rules that more closely reflect national populations.

The issue is “only going to get settled by the heads of state and government,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

Poland and Spain are insisting the EU stick to a 2000 deal struck in Nice, France, that gave them 27 votes in EU decision-making, almost equal to much more populous nations such as Britain, France, Germany and Italy, which got 29 votes.

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