The European Union is celebrating its 10th anniversary as it prepares to admit more countries in May and tries to come to an agreement on a constitution that will determine how an enlarged bloc will operate. The champagne corks were not popping in Brussels. EU officials say there is no time for celebration because the bloc is racing to come to an agreement on its draft constitution by year's end, to make sure it can accommodate its 10 new members.
Officials say the anniversary is not important anyway because it only marks 10 years since the approval of the Maastricht Treaty. That changed the bloc's name from European Community to European Union and approved a common currency, the euro, which went into effect for 12 of the 15 members in January 2002.
But early hopes of a swift agreement on the constitution, which is aimed at ensuring that an enlarged union will run smoothly, have been dashed by wrangling between the member states over just what it should, or should not, contain.
After deep divisions emerged within the European Union over the war in Iraq, France and Germany insist the bloc should have an independent military capability. But Britain wants the EU military structure to be tied to NATO, and the United States also worries that the development of an EU force could undermine the alliance.
Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament, says it is imperative that the constitution include a clause mandating the creation of an EU defense capability. He says such a clause would underpin relations between the European Union and NATO, which allow the European Union access to NATO facilities.
"The Americans and the British have to understand that, if it is not done in the framework of the European Union, it will be done outside the framework, out[side] all the legal obligations to NATO," he said.
But military capabilities are not the only problem. There are differences between large member countries and the smaller ones about the number of European commissioners in Brussels, and what each member state's weighted voting strength should be in the EU Council of Ministers.
Jacques Poos, a member of the European Parliament from Luxembourg, does not believe that these differences over the draft constitution can be ironed out this year. "Today, I think it would not be impossible that there will be a flow over to the Irish presidency starting on the 1st of January of next year," said Mr. Poos.
Ireland takes over the EU rotating presidency from Italy, whose prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, says he is determined to clear the logjam over the constitution during his turn at the helm. He has called for an informal summit of EU leaders later this month to narrow the differences. But after the failure of a similar summit last month, the signs are not encouraging.
Graham Watson, a British member of the European Parliament, says there is not much time for the leaders to overcome obstacles to an agreement on the future EU institutional framework.
"I fear that time is slipping away very fast, and, if they fail to meet their December deadline, then I can see the whole thing unraveling very fast," commented Mr. Watson.
The constitution must be approved by every current and future member government before it can become effective. But that is not all. It has to be approved by the parliaments of all 25 states as well as the European Parliament. And some countries insist on submitting it to popular referendum.
If the proposed constitution fails to overcome all of those hurdles, it will not hinder the Union's enlargement. But it will leave a lot of unfinished business to be resolved in the years ahead.