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EU Meeting Deadlocked Over Voting Rights - 2003-12-12


Leaders of the European Union's 15 current and 10 future members have begun a crucial summit in Brussels to try to hammer out an agreement on the group's first constitution. But, the talks are deadlocked over the issue of how much decision-making power each country will have in an enlarged union.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, says it will take a miracle to secure an agreement on the constitution. He has struggled for the past two months to steer the 25 countries to an accord, but now says a battle over each nation's voting rights could sink the entire project.

Still, the eternally optimistic Italian leader told reporters as he entered EU headquarters Friday morning that he will continue trying to get a deal.

"We will try to do it," he said. "We're in the process of trying. Let's hope for the best."

The Italian leader has promised to unveil a compromise to break the deadlock, but only at the last minute.

The summit is scheduled to last two days, but most observers believe it will turn into a marathon bargaining session that may extend into next week.

The core of the debate is how voting rights will be distributed in the expanded union. It pits Germany and France - the EU's powerhouses - against Spain and newcomer Poland.

Germany and France are insisting that voting power must reflect the size of each country's population. Spain and Poland are determined to hang on to voting rights they obtained three years ago, which gave them a disproportionate weight in EU decision-making.

Spain and Poland, with approximately 40 million people each, now have 27 votes apiece, compared to 29 for Germany, which has 80 million people.

Under the proposed constitution, EU decisions would be adopted, if approved by half of the EU states representing 60 percent of the enlarged union's 450 million people.

The aim of the constitution is to streamline decision making. But diplomats say failure to agree on the constitution could leave the EU rudderless, as it tries to absorb its 10 new members next year.

Another crucial issue is just how far European nations should go in seeking closer integration. Britain, for instance, is resisting any attempt by the EU to harmonize tax rates, adopt common rules on social security and have the final say on foreign policy.

The haggling over the constitution comes just after an EU-sponsored public opinion poll disclosed that there is rising skepticism among EU citizens about building a more unified Europe. The poll shows that citizens are more concerned with such practical issues as fighting crime, improving transportation and regulating immigration.

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