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EU Leaders Disagree on Constitution, New Commission Chief - 2004-06-18

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels have begun the second day of a crucial two-day summit with no consensus candidate to head the executive European Commission and renewed disagreements on a new constitution for the 25-member bloc. The mood at the summit has soured as leaders dig in their heels to defend what they perceive as their national interests.

EU diplomats say the summit has turned increasingly rancorous as France and Germany, on the one hand, and Britain, on the other, wrangle over who should be the new European Commission chief and whether countries should have the right to veto EU decisions on key issues.

Britain and some other countries have rejected the Franco-German candidate to head the commission, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, saying he is too much of a believer in a federal Europe. Also out of the running is EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, turned down by France because his country, Britain, does not participate in the EU's single currency and its open border regime. So the search is still on for a compromise candidate.

Meanwhile, the constitutional negotiations continue with the focus on how much voting weight each country should have in EU councils. The EU's Irish presidency says everybody agrees that most decisions should be approved by a majority of member states representing a majority of the union's population. The question under discussion is how big those majorities should be.

Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen says a more streamlined voting process is crucial for the union to be able to function.

"We're in the midst of negotiations on those questions," he said. "I think the bottom line is that we're trying to achieve an outcome which will be transparent, which will make it easier for the union to make decisions in the future, in its enlarged form, as it's going forward."

Despite Irish efforts to narrow down the differences, diplomats say tensions have risen in the conference room where the leaders are meeting.

Britain has told France and Germany that they cannot steamroller other countries into agreement. France, angry at some of the compromise proposals being floated to guarantee that Britain will retain its veto over EU decisions on taxes and foreign and defense policy, has said it will not tolerate any further retreat from the constitutional draft, which calls for an elimination of such vetoes.

Diplomats say the leaders might suspend their efforts to find a new commission chief and concentrate on nailing down the last hurdles to an agreement on the constitution. Whether that can be done by the end of the day is still uncertain.