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Hashing Out EU Constitution

Larger states differ with smaller ones in Rome talks seeking to finalize the draft document.

October 05, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — With competing agendas and contradictory visions, the leaders of 25 European countries held talks here Saturday aimed at finalizing a landmark constitution that will govern the soon-to-expand European Union.

The constitution is seen as an important milestone in the formation of the growing and increasingly powerful body of nations. But critics wonder whether it is nothing more than a piece of paper unable to minimize the region's differences.

Those differences were on display as presidents and prime ministers gathered at the ornate Palazzo dei Congressi, part of a marble complex built by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on the southwestern edge of Rome.

Larger countries such as France, Germany and Italy are eager to push through a constitution drafted over the summer, and Saturday they cautioned against picking the document apart. Smaller countries, however, are concerned it will drown out their voices.

"It is time now to move beyond endless institutional introspection and to concentrate on the EU's essential public purpose: improving the daily lives of our citizens," European Parliament President Pat Cox said in warning against "tinkering" with the draft.

Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi, host of the one-day summit by virtue of his nation's assumption of the rotating presidency of the EU, urged member states to ratify the constitution by the end of the year. The Italian leader envisions a signing ceremony in Rome.

"The constitution represents a beginning and an end," Berlusconi said. "It must mark the end of the divisions of Europe caused by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. It must mark the beginning of a Europe with strong common institutions, able to ensure peace, security and prosperity for its citizens."

An ambitious effort nearly two years in the drafting, the constitution will serve as the blueprint that governs the EU as it expands from 15 states to 25, and beyond. The document, written under the guidance of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, would have primacy over each member's national laws and govern trade, economic and social policy, as well as establish a single foreign minister and executive body.

At issue, however, are questions of national sovereignty, cultural identity and political power for a club of nations that eventually will represent more than 450 million people.

In a sign of how contentious the process is, demonstrators in downtown Rome who Friday deposited several barrels of manure outside Berlusconi's heavily guarded residence clashed with Italian police Saturday, with rolls of toilet paper their main weapon of choice.

Elsewhere in the city, demonstrators were reported to have trashed government offices and smashed car windows. Police, who responded with tear gas and wielded batons, said they arrested about 24 protesters and at least one person was injured.

In similar spirit, Italian unions were marching through Rome to protest government plans to revise pension programs and labor laws, reforms required in part by EU membership. Protesters objected that the drafting of rules to govern the continent occurs inside marble halls and pavilions, with little popular input.

Pope John Paul II also has weighed in on the drafting of the constitution, urging that it specifically honor what the Holy See considers to be the continent's "Christian roots." Predominately Catholic countries such as Spain support the pope, but more secular states such as France and Belgium are opposed. Thus far, the draft only salutes the "the cultural, religious and humanistic inheritance of Europe."

Saturday's Intergovernmental Conference was held under stringent security that was intensified after three mail bombs were discovered here last week. Police patrolled Rome's piazzas and helicopters buzzed the city for much of the day.

Among those in attendance were British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. Officials from the EU's 15 member states and the 10 nations scheduled to join in May attended. Also present were representatives of three aspiring members: Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria.

On the eve of the summit, smaller countries, including Austria and Finland, petitioned Berlusconi to revise the draft document because it sets up voting systems that would favor the most populous countries. Britain, meanwhile, is insisting that certain fields, such as defense, remain a matter of national purview. And Spain and Poland are objecting to revisions that dilute their voting power.

Still, organizers of the summit said they had made fundamental progress -- though few details were made available.

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