- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Even at nearly 500 pages, the European Union’s proposed constitution has proved too short to paper over fundamental differences on the future of the 25-nation bloc.

EU leaders gather today in Brussels for a two-day summit designed to mend fences and draft a new budget, but the effort has rapidly become an exercise in pessimism and finger-pointing.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was one of several European leaders expressing doubts that the summit could produce a breakthrough.

“There is too great a distance between the proposal we have today and the demands of each country,” Mr. Berlusconi told reporters in Rome.

At issue, European political analysts say, are competing visions for the bloc’s future.

At one end is a more modest, market-friendly, pro-American European Union favored by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. At the other is an ambitious, Brussels-centered political and economic heavyweight backed, most prominently, by France.

In London, Mr. Blair told Parliament yesterday that the stunning rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in recent weeks highlights the urgent need for “a far more fundamental debate about the future of Europe.”

Mr. Blair argued that the faltering constitution could be revived only after EU officials and national leaders address voter concerns about globalization, immigration and Europe’s relationship with the United States.

“Until we do that, then Europe will be uncertain in its political direction and people will find it difficult to vote for constitutional treaties or things that are important for the political class in Europe but do not necessarily answer the queries of the people,” he said.

On the budget issue, Britain is threatening to use its veto to preserve its widely criticized annual rebate from the EU budget, valued at $6.18 billion this year. Britain was given the rebate in 1984, when it was one of the bloc’s poorer countries.

Britain is now among the wealthiest EU countries, but has rejected any cut in the rebate unless there is also movement to cut the European Union’s massively expensive subsidy programs for farmers.

That stance has put Mr. Blair in direct conflict with French President Jacques Chirac, whose country is one of the largest recipients of EU agriculture payments.

A pre-summit meeting in Paris between the two leaders produced little visible movement.

“Each state must contribute to the European effort in proportion to its means, and the United Kingdom must play its part in the financing of an enlarged Europe,” Mr. Chirac said.

Without a long-term budget deal, EU leaders will be forced to rely on annual budgets as they try to absorb up to a dozen new members from Central and Eastern Europe and chart long-term reforms.

There are already signs that the confusion in Brussels is translating into political trouble for the European Union on the ground. In Italy, a party in the ruling coalition said this week that it would push for a popular referendum to abandon the euro, the European Union’s currency, in favor of the traditional lira.

The constitution hit a snag even in Germany, where the document had been approved in a parliamentary vote last month. German President Horst Koehler unexpectedly delayed the formal ratification until a legal challenge to the constitution is heard by Germany’s highest court.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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