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EU Leaders Brace for Crucial Summit on Constitution - 2004-06-16

Leaders of the European Union gather Thursday in Brussels for a two-day summit that may be their best chance to agree on a constitution that would enable the 25-nation bloc to streamline the way it makes decisions. Failure to agree could further undermine public confidence in the EU after mass abstentions and gains for Euro-skeptics in last week's European parliament elections.

The last time they got together, six weeks ago in Ireland, EU leaders joyously welcomed 10 new members into the club. Now, they have to sort out their differences over the proposed constitution so the bloc can function effectively with 25 members.

Ireland's minister for European affairs, Dick Roche, says it is urgent that member states agree on a constitution overhauling the Union's institutions to stave off paralysis in the years ahead.

"The reality of it is that the existing arrangements, after all, were put in place for a community of six, and then they were adjusted slightly for nine and 12 and 15. And now we're 25, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that, when you move from six up to 25, you need different institutional arrangements," Mr. Roche said.

As EU leaders prepare to descend on Brussels for an intense round of haggling, there are at least three thorny issues that still need to be solved. One of them involves the policy areas that would be subject to majority voting, with vetoes eliminated. Proponents of the constitution say more majority voting would prevent decision gridlock. But Britain insists on keeping its national veto over tax and social security issues as well as defense and foreign policy. And it is supported by some Nordic countries and many of the former communist states that just joined the Union.

Another involves the size of the European Commission, the EU's executive body. Small nations insist there should be one representative per country. Supporters of the constitutional draft say that a bureaucracy with 25 commissioners would be too unwieldy.

The toughest issue of all is how much voting weight each country will have when decisions are made by majority vote. That was the issue that sank the last attempt by EU leaders to agree on the constitution in December. France and Germany pushed for a new voting system to replace a flawed compromise formula that was agreed to four years ago. Poland and Spain held out for the old arrangement, known as the Nice Treaty, which gave them disproportionate influence.

Analyst Alasdair Murray, at London's Center for European Reform, says this voting rights issue is still the major obstacle to an agreement.

"There is still a lot of pressure from Poland and Spain to stick with the Nice Treaty, which gave Poland and Spain sort of extra weight than actually their populations would suggest they need. Poland, in particular, is in a terrible position now. Their ruling party did very poorly in the elections. There's a suggestion it might fall. So it's very difficult to see how it could give."

Diplomats have been pushing for a formula whereby a decision would require the support of 55 percent of member states representing 65 percent of the EU's population. But Poland signaled Wednesday that it will not accept such an arrangement without a guarantee that smaller nations could block decisions they see as unfavorable to their interests.

The showdown over the constitution comes as most leaders face up to stinging electoral defeats and a dismal turnout in last week's European parliament elections.

Analyst Richard Whitman, of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, says the election results show that the EU has failed to win the hearts and minds of its citizens.

"Remember that this constitutional treaty was supposed to be all about making Europe closer to the people, making it more easy to understand, and therefore hoping that the public would feel more engaged. And, clearly, that process hasn't worked,? Mr. Whitman said.

Analysts like Mr. Whitman say Europe's voters want their leaders to stop debating the fine points of the constitution and get on with what they see as more urgent tasks like creating jobs. But they also say that the EU can only get closer to its people if it reforms its institutions. EU officials agree, saying a second failure to agree on the constitution would restrict the bloc's capacity to act and alienate it even further from an already skeptical public.