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EU Leaders Meet on First Constitution, Commission Appointment - 2004-06-17

European Union leaders have opened a crucial two-day summit in Brussels in hopes of striking a deal over a new EU constitution designed to facilitate decision-making in an enlarged bloc of 25 members.

But the leaders must still bargain over key points of the document and overcome differences on who should head the union's executive body, the European Commission.

The term of current European Commission president Romano Prodi ends in October, and the EU leaders have until next month to find a successor.

But the front-runner, Belgium's liberal prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, has been rejected by the British, who regard him as too much of a European federalist. Though he is backed by EU heavyweights France and Germany, the Belgian leader has also run into opposition from Italy and Poland, which, like the British, remember his strong opposition to the Iraq war.

One name nearly all EU leaders can agree on is Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, an experienced and respected Christian Democrat who won re-election on Sunday. But Mr. Juncker has ruled himself out as a candidate for Europe's top job, preferring to govern his 450,000 countrymen to watching over the fate of 450 million Europeans.

The center-right forces in the European Parliament, which hold the biggest bloc of seats there, are pushing EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten for the job. He is a former head of Britain's Conservative Party and the last governor of Hong Kong, but he is opposed by the French, who regard his French-language skills as not being up to par.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, has been sounding out the other 24 delegations and promises to come up with a compromise candidate at a dinner for the leaders Thursday night.

Wrangling over who gets the top job at the European Commission has distracted the leaders from their main task, which is to nail down an agreement on the constitution. But most are voicing confidence that they will reach a deal and wrap up two years of tortuous negotiations on such issues as member states' individual voting weight and policy areas where national vetoes will remain.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country insists on maintaining a veto on EU decisions involving taxes, social security and foreign and defense policy, sounded cautious when he spoke to reporters.

"We've made very good progress over the past year in the negotiations," he said. "There are still some outstanding issues to be resolved. It remains to be seen whether we will resolve them."

The other thorny problem to be resolved is how much voting influence each country will have in EU decisions. Instead of requiring the support of 50 percent of the member states representing 60 percent of the EU's population, as outlined in the draft constitution, a decision, according to an Irish compromise formula, will now require backing from 55 percent of the member states representing 65 percent of the population. The Irish hope Spain and Poland, whose opposition to the original arrangement sank the last constitutional summit, will go along with the new version.