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EU Leaders Agree to Boost Military Operations but Deadlock on Voting Rights Continues - 2003-12-12

European Union leaders have agreed at a summit in Brussels to boost the bloc's ability to mount military operations when the U.S.-led NATO alliance does not want to get involved. But they have made no progress so far on the major item on their agenda-securing an agreement on the union's first constitution.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is chairing the summit, says he will give his colleagues until Sunday morning to come to an agreement on the constitutional draft that has deeply divided the leaders. Otherwise, he says, the negotiations on the constitution, which is supposed to streamline the bloc's decision making process, will have to continue next year, when Ireland replaces Italy in the EU's presidency.

The key sticking point is a dispute pitting France and Germany against Spain and Poland over how much voting weight each member should have. France and Germany say each country's weight should reflect the size of its population. Spain and Poland are determined to keep the disproportionate voting rights they obtained three years ago which gave them virtual parity with the EU's more populous states.

Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz says his country will not budge.

"We have red lines, and that must be respected by our partners. Otherwise, there will be no solution," he said.

But EU diplomats say that, if there is no solution, the EU will be paralyzed as it tries to absorb 10 new members, including Poland, next year.

Some EU officials, like Pat Cox - the president of the European Parliament - think it is imperative to settle the dispute at the summit, no matter how long it takes.

"Where is the added value by not settling? We know the questions. Is it going to get easier to answer the question by postponing, and, frankly, I doubt [it]. So, I think, let's do the business now, if we can," he said.

The leaders did agree to scale down contentious EU plans for an independent military command in a British-brokered effort to ease U.S. concerns over the threat that could pose to the unity of the NATO alliance. The deal will see the EU set up a military planning cell at NATO headquarters to run EU operations with NATO's help and boost its own staff with planners who will coordinate missions when NATO is not involved.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls the accord good news.

"What this gives us is the opportunity to keep the trans-Atlantic American alliance very strong but make sure that, in circumstances in which America is not engaged in an operation and where the vital European interests are involved, that Europe can act," he said.

The EU leaders also agreed to consider lifting their arms embargo on China that was imposed after the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. And they endorsed a $75 billion plan for dozens of public works and research projects that are intended to help lift Europe out of its economic doldrums.