- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

BRUSSELS — The embattled European Union said yesterday it will postpone the ratification of its troubled constitution beyond the previously set November 2006 deadline, but leaders failed to agree on whether to freeze the process for now.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern told reporters that all members agreed to the extension.

Also, a bitter dispute erupted over the 25-member union’s 2007-13 budget, as heads of state and government gathered here for a two-day summit.

Luxembourg, which holds the rotating EU presidency until the end of the month, formally proposed a pause in voting for or against the constitution for as long as a year, after the French and the Dutch rejected the proposed constitution three weeks ago.

But France, Germany and Belgium insisted that all EU members have their say on the document — either in a referendum or parliamentary vote — with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt saying a pause would send the wrong signal to European citizens.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw countered, saying the postponement of ratification already means that “the prospects of reviving [the constitution] get less and less the longer the period of time.”

Britain has already put on hold its plan for a referendum, and Sweden said yesterday its parliamentary vote will not take place in December, as previously scheduled.

“I think many countries which are planning referendums will say they will postpone them,” Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson told reporters.

Other countries expressed similar support for postponing a ratification vote.

Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek said he would recommend delaying a referendum on the EU constitution until the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007.

Denmark announced postponement of plans for a referendum because of uncertainty caused by French and Dutch rejections, said Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said it was up to his country’s parliament to decide whether a vote on the EU’s crisis-torn constitution goes ahead next month.

French President Jacques Chirac continued to argue that the constitution is not dead, and called for an emergency summit “to bridge the gulf that threatens to open between Europe and its peoples.”

EU leaders have indicated in the past couple of weeks that their ambitious expansion agenda would be suspended at least temporarily, especially regarding Turkey and southwestern Balkan countries such as Croatia.

Most EU leaders favor honoring a commitment to start accession talks with Turkey, the EU’s Luxembourg presidency said yesterday.

So far, no leader has suggested that Bulgaria and Romania be denied entry in 2007 or 2008, to which the EU agreed last year. Doubts remain nevertheless.

The fight for the union’s budget is expected to become even fiercer today, with many officials predicting that the gap between opposing sides is too wide to bridge.

Britain has been urged by many EU members, as well as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, to give up some of the rebate it receives for its large contributions to the EU budget.

Mr. Barroso asked London this week to recognize that the 10 new members that joined last year are “some of the poorest” in Europe and should not be expected to carry the burden of Britain’s rebate.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that the refund was fully justified and his government “will not negotiate it away.”

Mr. Straw last night threatened a veto on the budget if it is put to a vote with Luxembourg’s plan to reduce the rebate from about $6.2 billion to the pre-enlargement level of about $5.6 billion for the next seven years.

“The proposals from the presidency are not acceptable to us,” he said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in Berlin on Wednesday that “there is absolutely no justification any longer for the British rebate.”

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won the refund in 1984 as a compensation for the limited amount of EU farm subsidies Britain receives compared with France, for example.

EU officials said last night that the leaders might extend the summit through tomorrow if they think they could reach a budget deal in spite of the differences.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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