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    EU Extends Deadline for Ratification of Constitution

    European Union leaders have agreed to extend the deadline for ratification of the bloc's embattled constitution following its rejection by voters in France and the Netherlands. The leaders decided they need more time to persuade voters in other EU countries of the charter's merits.

    Trying to put a good face on the political disarray caused by the constitution's rejection, the leaders of Europe refuse to admit that the charter is dead, even though it has been rejected by two member states and needs to be approved by all of them to go into effect.

    They say that the ratification process must continue. But they say the November 2006 deadline for the constitution's approval by all countries is no longer tenable and that nations that have not yet voted on it need more time to gain public backing.

    Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, says there is no question of renegotiating the treaty.

    He says everybody agrees that the EU needs what he calls a period of reflection, explanation and debate involving all European and national institutions.

    Mr. Juncker did not explain how French and Dutch voters would be persuaded to vote again for the constitution that they rejected in recent referendums.

    But delaying the ratification process gives EU leaders more time to deal with the most pressing problem at the two-day summit that began Thursday: how to get an agreement on the union's long-term budget.

    Discussions on the EU's future funding have been marred by a battle over the more than five-billion-dollar rebate that Britain gets every year from EU coffers. The rebate, given to Britain since 1984 when it was a much poorer country than it is today.

    The other 24 EU members demand that the British rebate be eliminated or, at least, frozen because some members are poorer than Britain today. Britain says it will only consider any such move if the EU's farm subsidies, which heavily favor France, are cut back, an idea that France rejects.

    The leaders will devote all day Friday to try to work out a deal on the budget, but there is little hope that they can reach one.

    Among the reasons given by voters in France and the Netherlands for rejecting the constitution was their feeling that the EU's expansion into Eastern Europe last year went too far, too fast.

    French President Jacques Chirac has suggested that the union freeze its plans for further expansion. But Mr. Juncker says putting the constitutional ratification process on hold should not affect the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, which is scheduled for 2007. And, he says, the EU's commitment to begin membership talks with Turkey in October of this year must be respected, even though the negotiations are expected to take a decade or more.

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