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EU Leaders Agree on a Constitution

The 300-page document requires ratification by all 25 member states within two years.

June 19, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — European leaders at a summit in Brussels announced Friday night that they had agreed on a constitution for the newly enlarged European Union, culminating years of discussions and two days of last-minute wrangling between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.

After the leaders toasted their accord with champagne, Blair said that most of the 25-member union had lined up behind his vision of an EU as a collection of strong and separate nation-states cooperating willingly, rather than the concept that the French and Germans preferred of the EU evolving into a "federal superstate."

The 300-page document titled "A Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe" would require ratification by all 25 parliaments of the EU's member states within two years to take effect, and in some countries -- including Britain -- political leaders have said that there must be popular votes to finalize the ratification process.

Blair, who has been under attack from "Euroskeptics" who think that Britain is in danger of ceding too many national powers to Brussels, defended the agreement and said that Britain had retained all of its "red lines" -- including a veto over questions of defense and foreign policy and the right to a separate tax system.

The need for a treaty forming a new constitution for the EU had become obvious -- to streamline decision-making when the already unwieldy organization expanded from 15 to 25 members in May. But sharp differences among the members, including over voting procedures and how much power would accrue to the EU governing bodies, had prevented any agreement until now.

When Italy held the EU presidency last year, it had proved unable to build a consensus among the member states. But Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has held the presidency for the last six months, succeeded in forging a deal where his predecessors failed.

Ahern -- who is being pressed by some leaders to take over as head of the EU commission -- said it was a fair deal. "Nobody was rolled over, and we worked hard to achieve that," he said.

Chirac said that the accord meant "an important day for Europe" and that it was "better late than never." He said the treaty would give the EU the ability to be more efficient and responsible to the needs of Europeans, and give it a "greater weight in the world." The agreement came just 24 hours after a bitter tirade against Britain by Chirac, who accused the British of national stubbornness and watering down the proposed constitutions by demanding vetoes over foreign and defense policies.

But Blair's position that sovereign member states needed to be allowed to retain key powers was aided by the results of last week's voting for the European Parliament, and apparently resonated with some of the 10 new member states from Eastern and Southern Europe. The European Parliament voting saw opposition and Euroskeptic parties making gains compared with established political parties, and analysts believe that the popular will was behind keeping many governing powers closer to home rather than giving them to Brussels.

Blair told reporters that it had been a difficult negotiation.

"There was a battle about the type of future Europe we were going to have. There were people who wanted to harmonize taxes or give away the veto on foreign policy and defense. That is not what has happened," he said, alluding to France and Germany. "Instead we have found common cause and common allies in ensuring that Europe remains a Europe of nation-states."

To critics at home, Blair said: "Give us the chance to make our case for a different type of Europe which is taking place -- one in which we can feel at home."

The leaders in Brussels could not settle on a replacement for president of the European Commission after Romano Prodi of Italy steps down later this year, and said that they would put off the decision for several days.



Major points

* The constitution creates post of European president. Chosen by European Union leaders for maximum five-year term to chair EU summits, represent EU abroad.

* Starting November 2009, policies will be implemented if at least 15 countries representing at least 65% of the EU's 455 million people agree. At least four nations must oppose an issue before it can be blocked.

* The constitution expands the European Parliament from 732 seats to a maximum of 750.

Source: Associated Press

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