In a sign that Europe's grand experiment with a constitution could unravel, France and Germany threatened on Tuesday to reject it if smaller countries continue to insist on negotiating changes designed to enhance their power.
Following a one-hour meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany at the Elysee Palace, President Jacques Chirac of France told reporters: "The chancellor and I will not accept an agreement at any price and under any conditions. We want a deal that fits with the line of thinking that we have about the Europe of tomorrow."
Schroeder chimed in, "We are totally on the same line."
Their joint stand guarantees that the EU summit meeting that opens tomorrow to resolve the remaining differences over the constitution will be fractious.
Just as important for the future of Europe, it underscores the close relationship that has been forged between their countries in the past year, often to the detriment of their other European partners.
With the EU expanding from 15 to 25 members in May and later adopting its first constitution, France and Germany are determined to preserve their position, held over the past half century, as the driving force of European integration.
To that end, they said on Tuesday they want as few changes as possible to the draft constitution that was celebrated by all EU members with champagne and Beethoven's Ode to Joy in Brussels in June.
The most contentious unresolved constitutional issues involve the distribution of power among large and small states. At the time the draft constitution was approved, for example, Spain and Poland vowed to amend it to preserve complex voting rights that give them power disproportionate to their populations.
Chirac on Tuesday called on Spain and Poland to "make a gesture" in the negotiations. Asked whether there would be an agreement if their demands were not dropped, Chirac replied, "I'm not certain about it."
Once again, Schroeder was the echo, saying, "I have nothing to add."
Since 2001, the two leaders have made it a practice to get together with their foreign ministers over a meal every four to six weeks; Tuesday's meeting and lunch was one such gathering. But until last year, their personal relationship was described as awkward, even tense. Now they greet each other with bear hugs and beer. On Tuesday, Schroeder even brought Chirac a Christmas present: an eighth-century Chinese terra cotta figure to add to his collection of Asian art.
Their joint declaration on the constitution is just the latest of a string of examples of their collaboration to maximize the power and leverage of their countries.
The first concrete example came in October last year, when Chirac and Schroeder, on the eve of a summit meeting, unexpectedly reached agreement on blocking reform of the EU's costly agricultural subsidy program until 2006.
In January, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty that pledged friendship between the two countries, the German government and Bundestag moved to Paris for the day for a joint Cabinet meeting and joint session of the two countries' parliaments.
The US-led war against Iraq, which the two leaders opposed, strengthened their unity by pitting them against Britain, Spain, Italy, Poland and other central European countries, which supported it.
In October, in an act fraught with political symbolism, Schroeder asked Chirac to stand in for him on the second day of the EU summit meeting in Brussels.