- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

From combined dispatches

NAPLES — Anger over Franco-German trampling on European Union budget rules spilled over into tough talks on a new EU constitution yesterday with some countries demanding stricter guarantees that future laws will be obeyed.

In one potential breakthrough, Britain said it had reached a draft deal with France and Germany on EU defense arrangements that could end a bitter dispute with the United States, which fears a move to undermine NATO’s primacy.

But a British spokesman made clear the accord, which the French daily Le Monde said would allow the European Union to plan and conduct military operations independently of NATO, first had to be cleared with “key allies” — code for Washington.

Dutch Europe Minister Atzo Nicolai made a sour start to two days of intensive talks on a charter to govern an enlarged 25-nation bloc, telling EU foreign ministers the suspension of disciplinary moves against Germany and France on their excessive deficits had severely damaged citizens’ trust in Europe.

“We can’t just go on with business as usual. The impression has been created that there is one law for the big countries and another for the rest,” Mr. Nicolai told reporters.

That would make it harder to win a referendum on the constitution unless confidence in the European Union were restored, he said.

Mr. Nicolai suggested the executive European Commission, whose recommendation to sanction France and Germany was blocked on Tuesday by a minority of member states, be given stronger powers in the constitution to enforce budget discipline.

Sweden and Spain supported him, but the ministers agreed not to let the issue disrupt the key final phase of constitutional negotiations culminating in a Dec. 12-13 summit in Brussels.

Despite official Italian optimism, ministers made little visible progress in narrowing differences over a new charter designed to prepare the European Union for its expansion eastward in 2004.

European Parliament delegates at the talks voiced anger at a bid by finance ministers to curtail the wider budget powers that a draft constitution would confer on their institution.

“This is a really important battle. If this is not given to parliament, then you send a message to the bureaucratic side that they run the whole shop,” said Elmar Brok, a conservative German member of the European Parliament.

Diplomats said ministers failed to break a deadlock over inserting a mention of the EU’s Christian roots into a new constitution, in the first of two days of talks here.

Italy, which holds the rotating EU presidency, presented a compromise whereby the preamble of the document would refer not only to Europe’s Christian inheritance, but also to the secular nature of EU members’ institutions.

Italy, along with Spain, Ireland and future member Poland, are pushing for the specific Christianity reference urged by Pope John Paul II, leader of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics.

However unanimity is required for text changes and the effort looked unlikely to succeed.

The preamble to the draft constitution thrashed out in a 16-month convention led by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing makes a reference to Europe’s religious inheritance, but the traditionally Roman Catholic countries are insisting on a specific reference to Christianity.

The toughest disputes over member states’ voting weights and seats in the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, will be broached today.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hopes to crown Rome’s EU presidency by sealing a constitution deal next month. But after a bruising week in Brussels over budget disputes, many participants seemed less willing to make concessions for a timely conclusion.

The bust-up over budgets appeared to have strengthened the resolve of smaller nations not to give bigger nations more voting weight.

Big states want a slimmed-down European Commission but small nations are insisting on one commissioner per country.

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