Friday, June 18, 2004

BRUSSELS — Leaders of the European Union agreed yesterday on the first constitution for the united continent, spelling out the voting system and nations’ rights for the bloc’s 25 members but keeping out any reference to God, officials said.

Leaders adopted the constitution about an hour after receiving the final translated text. They then toasted the historic charter with champagne.

“The message is that we can create a new era for Europe,” Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowan said.

However, the selection of the new president for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, was delayed because of continuing disagreement, EU spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said.

Agreement on the constitution comes about six weeks after the EU added 10 new members, mainly former Soviet bloc nations, to increase its membership to 25.

Leaders had hoped for a deal yesterday to boost the EU’s credibility in the eyes of a skeptical public a week after an electoral drubbing and six months after their last attempt collapsed in acrimony over voting rules and other issues.

The constitution aims to streamline the union’s complex institutions and boost its image on the world stage by creating an EU foreign minister. Fearing gridlock in the expanded club, the document also aims to curb areas in which individual countries can veto decisions.

The final text resolves one of the most bitter disputes — the voting system — by requiring that a measure can only pass if approved by at least 15 countries representing 65 percent of the bloc’s 455 million people.

A measure could only be blocked if vetoed by at least four countries with 35 percent of the population — another safeguard to prevent the biggest countries from running roughshod over the rest.

Spain, among those fighting hardest for the interests of smaller countries, was satisfied with the compromise, diplomats said.

Britain also was satisfied that it preserved its veto over taxation, defense and foreign policy and had gained guarantees that a sweeping charter on fundamental rights would not allow European courts to challenge British labor laws, which are more restrictive than those elsewhere on the Continent.

“We are happy with all of it. All our red lines have been met,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman said.

Despite last-minute lobbying from Pope John Paul II, a reference to Europe’s Christian traditions did not make it into the text — something Spain, Poland and several other countries sought — several diplomats said.

“At a moment when a new order is being born in old Europe, Spain cannot fail to bring forth among its many contributions the express manifestation of its Christian roots,” John Paul said in a Vatican City meeting with Spain’s ambassador.

France and others say this would violate the principle of separation of church and state.

All 25 EU member states must formally ratify the treaty within two years before it can take effect. Several governments, including Britain’s, are planning a referendum.

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