Deadlock on voting rights stops EU from accepting constitution

Germany, France want plan based on population

December 14, 2003|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON - Leaders had hoped to toast a new European Union constitution this weekend, but their summit in Brussels collapsed in disarray and disappointment yesterday after they failed to find a compromise on how to apportion voting rights.

On the table was a draft constitution, 18 months in the making, that was supposed to knit 25 European nations into a single, nearly seamless economic and political unit. Despite the official optimism, most observers expected the failure.

The main dispute pitted the EU's two heavyweights, Germany and France, against two smaller nations, Spain and Poland. The continent's two most populous countries favor a voting formula that gives such countries more weight. Spain and Poland want to keep the old system, which gives them almost as much voting power as Germany and France, which have a combined population nearly double that of the two smaller nations.

"It has not been possible to reach agreement on all points," said Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Countries are going to need some time to find a common accord."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who led the summit, said there was "total disagreement" on the issue. He unsuccessfully offered four compromises to break the deadlock.

The failure scuttles, for the time being, the EU's plan for a new president, a foreign minister and a greater profile on the global stage to rival that of the United States.

The draft constitution, written under the supervision of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, proposed a "double majority" voting formula that would allow the EU to enact laws that had the support of a simple majority of nations representing 60 percent of the EU's population.

Spain and Poland argued that this formula favors big countries like France and Germany and also small ones such as Luxembourg, population 453,000.

"If it is not possible to agree, we shall wait," said Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz. "We are talking about compromise or domination."

Poland doesn't become a member of the EU until May, when the European club takes in 10 new members, mainly from Eastern Europe, but it has established a reputation as a tough negotiator.

The French called the Poles "intransigent." Other diplomats said the French were the least willing to compromise.

Germany, which contributes more than any other member to the EU's budget, hinted that it might cut back subsidies that benefit Poland and Spain. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder complained that some nations were "representing their national interests and have left the European idea behind."

The disagreement is not expected to delay the expansion. The biggest concern, however, is that the EU is evolving into a two-tier club with Germany and France on top and less populous, poorer countries below.

"If we do not reach a consensus in the foreseeable future, then a two-speed Europe will emerge. That would be the logic of such a final failure," Schroeder said after the talks broke down.

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said it would probably take a least a year before talks on the constitution could resume. He said the EU would ask Ireland, which takes over the revolving EU presidency next year, to explore ways around the voting deadlock.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he would hold bilateral talks with member states and give a progress report at the EU's next summit, scheduled for March.

The two-day summit was not a complete failure. The leaders agreed on a common defense policy that will enable the EU to act independently of NATO.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire reports contributed to this article.

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