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European Parliament Approves EU Draft Constitution

Members of the European Parliament have voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new EU draft constitution that is designed to streamline the way the 25-member bloc works. The constitution faces tough tests in the months ahead, when it will be submitted to popular referendums in several EU countries.

The vote at the European Parliament meeting in the French city of Strasbourg, was 500 in favor, 137 against, and 40 abstentions.

Most of the "No" votes were cast by legislators opposed to further European integration, most of whom are British. But they were joined by some communists and right-wing nationalists from other nations.

The majority urged the bloc's governments to move rapidly to educate voters on what the constitution is all about. Public-opinion polls have shown that more than half of the 455 million EU citizens have no idea what is in the lengthy document.

The constitution is supposed to prevent institutional paralysis in the European Union, which incorporated 10 new members last year and is expected to grow even further in the years ahead.

It would give the European Union a president and a foreign minister as well as new voting rules ensuring that most decisions be made by a majority of member nations representing more than half the EU population.

But EU decisions in some policy areas, notably foreign affairs, taxation and defense, would still be subject to vetoes by individual nations.

Although the constitution has been approved by the parliaments of Hungary and Lithuania, some countries have insisted that their voters have the final word on whether the document should go into effect. The most crucial of these votes are to be held in France and Britain.

In France, a referendum is expected within the next six months, and even though most voters there are pro-European Union, president Jacques Chirac is worried that French anger at an EU decision to start membership talks with Turkey may result in a protest vote against the constitution.

In Britain, the most euro-skeptical member country, opponents of the document claim it will lead to the creation of a European super-state that will subvert British sovereignty.

Legally, the constitution cannot enter into force unless all 25 members ratify it. A "no" vote in a big country like Britain or France could deal a severe blow, not only to the constitution but to the European Union itself.