Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Amid terror fears, European leaders gather for summit

AFP , Brussels

European leaders were to gather yesterday for a summit clouded by the specter of terrorism after the Madrid terror blasts, but amid rising hopes of an accord to resume stalled talks on a historic constitution.

Leaders may set a date to restart the constitutional talks, which collapsed amid acrimony in December, with some suggesting a special summit to finalize a deal could even be held before EU-wide elections in mid-June.

"I don't think anybody seriously doubts that there will agreement to resume the formal talks," said one diplomat ahead of the two-day Brussels summit which was to start yesterday evening.

Kick-starting Europe's fledgling economic recovery, itself threatened by the fallout from the Spanish rail blasts and increased terror fears, is also high on the agenda of the meeting.

The Madrid massacre will cast a pall over the summit, at which EU leaders will approve a package of counter-terrorism measures agreed since the March 11 attacks, Europe's worst atrocity since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

The summit is expected to approve a package of measures to beef up defenses against al-Qaeda-style attacks, even if some now believe them to be inevitable.

But by a cruel irony the Madrid bombings removed a major obstacle to the constitutional deal: in elections after the attack Spanish voters ousted prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, who had blocked the proposals along with Poland.

Irish Prime Minister and summit host Bertie Ahern has circulated a three-page report to his EU counterparts on the constitution hopes, which they were to discuss over dinner yesterday evening.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, confirms that the key sticking points remain voting weights and the composition of the European Commission after the EU's May 1 enlargement from 15 to 25 members.

But it concluded that "there is reason to believe that an overall agreement acceptable to all delegations is achievable if the necessary political will exists."

Talks on the constitution were launched more than two years ago to reform the EU's institutions after its expansion from 15 to 25 members on May 1, the biggest in the bloc's nearly half-century history.

But they failed in December after Spain and incoming EU heavyweight Poland refused to give up generous voting rights they secured four years ago, which gave them nearly as much influence as the EU's largest member, Germany.

Ireland was tasked with consulting among EU members and reporting back to this week's summit on prospects for the talks.

Dublin has now effectively recommended a resumption, and the question is now when the EU should aim to finalize a deal.

One diplomat said "the most sensible option" appears to be to tack the constitutional talks onto a scheduled June summit just after the European elections.

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