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Negotiations Open on EU Constitution - 2003-10-04

The struggle for power in an enlarged European Union has begun, as leaders of current and future members gathered in Rome to open negotiations on the bloc's first constitution. There are many issues at stake, but the main one is how much voting power and how big a voice each country will have when the bloc expands from 15 to 25 members next May.

The constitution was drafted over 16 months by a 105-member convention that finished its work in June. The document is designed to prevent paralysis and ensure that EU decision-making functions more effectively, after the union brings in its new members.

Big countries like Germany and France, as well as Italy - which at present holds the rotating EU presidency - want the draft to be approved with few changes.

But a number of small countries, led by Austria and Finland, say the draft, as it stands, will only enhance the power of the big countries, and diminish their the smaller countries' voice on the European stage.

They want to keep the right of each member to name a full voting member of the executive European Commission. The proposed constitution would reduce the number of commissioners to 15 after the year 2009.

Member states are also divided over whether the document should include a specific reference to Europe's Christian heritage.

The central fight, however, will be between Poland and Spain, on the one hand, and the EU's big four - France, Germany, Italy and Britain - over voting power.

The draft proposes that EU decision-making on all issues except taxes, foreign policy, defense and immigration, be carried out by a simple majority of member states representing 60 percent of the bloc's eventual population of 450 million.

But Spain and Poland - two countries known for their dogged negotiating and willingness to be spoilers - insist that they be allowed to maintain the disproportionate clout they won in a complex weighted voting system under the EU's Nice Treaty, which was negotiated in 2000.

The arrangement gives the two countries, each of which has about 40 million citizens, 27 votes apiece, compared with 29 for Germany, which has a population twice that size. France, Britain and Italy, each with about 60 million people, also have 29 votes.

Germany, the EU's chief paymaster, has hinted that its willingness to go on funding aid to poorer regions of Spain and Poland will hinge on whether those two countries are willing to compromise.

With his own reputation in Europe resting on a successful conference, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pleaded Saturday for unity among the squabbling camps.

"I feel confidence that we will seize this exceptional opportunity fully. This is a moment, which will allow us to show that what unites us prevails over that which distinguishes us," Mr. Berlusconi said.

Mr. Berlusconi wants the negotiations to conclude at the end of this year. But diplomats say that is not likely. They also point out that the constitution has to be approved by unanimity and later sent to national parliaments for ratification. In some countries, it will be submitted to a popular referendum.

So, there is the danger that only one of the 25 current and future members could reject the constitutional blueprint. That could throw a huge monkey wrench into the works, and set back the cause of European integration.