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EU Leaders Agree on Constitution - 2004-06-19


European Union leaders have agreed on a first-ever constitution for the 25-nation bloc after two days of nearly non-stop negotiations. But, relief over the deal was tempered by the leaders' failure to agree on a new president for the European Commission, the EU's executive body.

It is a landmark in the history of the European Union. The agreement on the constitution outlines how power will be shared in the bloc, calls for more majority voting instead of decisions by unanimity, and gives more say to the European Parliament.

Although the leaders toasted Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his team with champagne for steering the negotiations that clinched the deal, they are aware that this is only a first step. They must still try to sell the draft constitution to European citizens, who have grown skeptical about what the union can do for them.

At least nine of the 25 member states say they will submit the charter to popular referendums. If the document agreed on Friday is rejected by voters in any one of those countries, it will be null and void, and the leaders will have to go back to the drawing board.

Still, Mr. Ahern expressed relief that, after hard-fought negotiations, the deal was consummated. "I think we've all achieved a fundamental advance for the European Union. And the text enables everyone to say that their specific terms were accommodated. And we've listened to each other. We've understood each other's concerns. This is a win-win solution which we set out many, many months ago to try to achieve."

Other leaders, too, hailed the deal. French President Jacques Chirac spoke of what he called "an important day for Europe". German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called it a "historic decision" and "an important signal for European Unity". And British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who fought fiercely to preserve Britain's right to veto EU decisions on tax matters and foreign and defense policy, described it as "a success for Britain and a success for Europe."

The final text resolved a bitter dispute over the voting system that sank the last constitutional summit in December. The deal requires EU decisions to have the support of at least 15 of the 25 members representing 65 percent of the union's population.

But the leaders failed to achieve another goal of the summit, which was to select a replacement for Romano Prodi, the outgoing president of the European Commission, whose term ends in October. Mr. Ahern says he still wants to tackle that challenge in the 12 days before Ireland finishes its turn at the EU's rotating presidency.

The problem is that only three potential candidates who might achieve an EU wide consensus remain: Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso and Mr. Ahern himself. And all three say they do not want the job.