European leaders, reaching across the fault lines of last century's battlefields, said on Friday that they had struck a deal on a European constitution, the latest step in the gradual but creaking process toward a more united continent.
Under the agreement, for the first time, the continent -- through the 25-nation EU -- would have a president, a foreign minister and a single rule book to replace the web of treaties that govern the complex relationships among the union's member countries. But the constitution still faces a hard test: ratification by all 25 members, which could be exceedingly difficult in the face of strong skepticism in some countries and voter apathy. At least seven of the nations have decided to ratify the pact by referendum.
While the leaders toasted their success with champagne, the past two days were marked by dogged and at times polarized talks that ended in compromises many participants strongly criticized. Many of the compromises limited the scope of decision-making in sensitive areas such as taxation and social issues. Negotiators inserted what they called "emergency brakes" for countries worried about retaining their national prerogatives, notably Britain.
"We have to move at the pace of the slowest camel in the train," said John Palmer, director of the European Policy Center in Brussels.
The constitution is a legalistic document of nearly 350 articles -- perhaps not what leaders had envisioned when they called for a "more democratic, more transparent and more efficient" system at a meeting two-and-a-half years ago in Brussels.
But it contains a string of innovations. Among them is creation of a European public prosecutor, a sort of nascent federal attorney-general who would be responsible for investigating and bringing to trial those cases where the EU's financial interests are at stake. According to officials, they could involve crimes like fraud in the EU budget or counterfeiting of euro notes and coins. Ultimately the prosecutor could also be responsible for prosecuting "serious crime having a cross-border dimension."
There are also provisions for countries to take part in special combat units if they choose, an issue closely watched by Washington; and for closer cooperation on military procurement.
"This is definitely a step forward," said Marco Incerti, research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies. "They have increased transparency and simplified the institutions to some extent."
With its demands to keep a national veto on a wide range of issues including taxation and foreign policy, Britain was pitted against France and Germany, whose delegations were grinding their teeth at what they saw as their neighbor's intransigence.