Sun, Dec 14, 2003 - Page 1 News List

EU still deadlocked over voting rules

HOLDOUTS Spain and Poland's refusal to see their power diminished is threatening the whole architecture of the Union's draft constitution


Italy put forward new proposals yesterday aimed at placating Spain and Poland and breaking a deadlock over voting rules under a constitution for the EU, which is to expand to 25 nations next May.

As Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi arrived for yesterday's closed-door meetings at the EU summit, he told reporters he would offer four voting formulas. But he gave no indication that the proposals would produce a breakthrough.

"There is still a point where there is no agreement -- there's great disagreement, in fact," Berlusconi, chairman of the summit, said.

"We will see if everybody can set aside their own interests," he said. "If we can't find an agreement, we will nullify all the work" done in recent months.

Berlusconi gave no details of his proposals but called them "reasonable."

Italian diplomatic sources said the formulas were being constantly retooled in ongoing multilateral talks. As a result, the formal plenary session of all 25 delegations was postponed for six hours.

Current members Spain and Poland -- the biggest of the 10 countries joining the 15-member EU next May -- object to provisions in the draft constitution that would change the voting system within EU council meetings.

The constitution would scrap a voting system that was accepted in 2000 and gave Spain and Poland almost as many votes as Germany, which has a population roughly equal to the other two combined.

Germany and France say the changes will make the system more democratic and are necessary to streamline decision-making when the EU takes in 10 new members in May. The constitution must be approved by all 25 governments.

It was unclear whether compromise was possible. National interests are on the line because the decision will determine the balance of power within the EU for decades.

"If it's not possible to agree, we shall wait," said Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz. "We're talking about compromise or domination."

Germany, the bloc's biggest member, said the future of the EU was at stake. "This is not about national interests," Bela Anda, spokesman for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, told reporters.

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who was at the summit against doctor's advice after he suffered two broken vertebrae in a helicopter crash last week, was a bit more conciliatory.

"I hope that we will reach a compromise," Miller said as he hobbled in to separate meetings with his German and French counterparts.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar met with French President Jacques Chirac on Saturday but the outcome was unclear.

With unanimity required for passage, Berlusconi was at pains to save the summit. "We will put as many solutions as possible on the table, I continue to hope for a deal," he said.

The Italian premier skipped dinner Friday night to continue one-on-one talks that dragged late into the night and resumed Saturday morning in a last-ditch effort to salvage the constitutional treaty after two years of work.

"Where there's a will there's a way," Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said.

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