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EU leaders aim to fast-track constitution
( 2003-10-05 10:24) (Agencies)

European Union leaders said Saturday they hope to endorse their new constitution in mid-December, setting a tight deadline for overcoming a power struggle between small and large nations.

The leaders emerged from a four-hour summit in Rome promising the constitution will take effect in 2005. By then, 10 more nations will have joined the bloc, raising the EU membership to 25.

But tough bargaining lies ahead in the next 10 weeks.

As the leaders left the summit Saturday, their foreign ministers began the first of a series of debates to settle disagreements over the text.

"We have opened a new page in Europe's history," French President Jacques Chirac said.

Chirac and other leaders cautioned against a wholesale re-negotiation of the draft.

The constitution foresees an EU president, a foreign minister, a structured defense policy and provisions to make it more difficult to wield vetoes that cause bureaucratic gridlock. It also calls for an EU executive of only 15 members, denying each state the automatic right to one European Commissioner.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose country holds the EU presidency, said "a very difficult task awaits us" in overcoming differences.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw suggested that divisions over the war in Iraq should not stop EU nations from seeking an integrated security and foreign policy, saying "we are stronger when we are united."

The leaders met amid heavy security at the Palazzo dei Congressi, a Fascist-era convention complex in southern Rome, away from the city's historic center.

Police cordoned off a 2 1/2-mile zone around the venue to guard against thousands of anti-globalization protesters, who swung wooden clubs at a line of riot police. Authorities responded with tear gas.

After a standoff around the summit site in a southern Roman suburb, several thousand marchers tried to push past a thick line of police. They hurled eggs and rotten fruit and then used a large shield to try to breach the barrier, shouting: "Murderers! Murderers!"

About 6,000 people took part in the anti-globalization protest in the southern suburb of EUR, police said, while 15,000 others gathered for a calm demonstration in the city center. Protesters elsewhere gutted an employment agency, vandalized two gas stations and a bank, and threw rolls of toilet paper at police. Authorities detained about 50 demonstrators.

The debate has pitted countries into alliances.

Austria, Finland and those set to join the club next year Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Malta and Lithuania are demanding that the charter "respects the principles of equality" of nations large and small.

They want to renegotiate majority voting rules, the role of EU leaders in union decision-making, the need to keep the EU presidency rotating among member states, the allocation of European Parliament seats and national votes in decision-making ministerial meeting.

Poland and Spain want to retain a complicated formula that allocates national votes in decision-making meetings; Germany and others back the draft's proposal for a redistribution of votes to more closely reflect population figures.

Also, Poland, Spain and Italy want the constitution to refer to God and Judeo-Christian values as a vital part of European heritage something opposed by France.

"There should be no favoritism in religions," Chirac said.

Britain insists foreign issues, taxation, social security and defense matters remain subject to national vetoes.

It is the fourth time in a decade that EU states have undertaken to rewrite the rule book. A final constitution must be ratified by all EU legislatures and the European Parliament if it is to take effect in 2005.

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