At talks, EU members differ on constitution

Small nations fear losing voice

large ones seek to push document through

October 05, 2003|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - With competing agendas and contradictory visions, the leaders of 25 European countries held talks here yesterday 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 evident 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, including France, Germany and Italy, are eager to push through a constitution drafted over the summer, and yesterday they warned against picking the document apart. Smaller countries, however, are concerned that 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 Minister Silvio Berlusconi, host of the one-day summit by virtue of his nation's having assumed 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 its membership of 15 states to 25 and beyond. The document, written under the guidance of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, would have primacy over national laws; govern trade, economic and social policy; and establish a single foreign minister and executive body.

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

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

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

Separately but 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.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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