EU Constitution complete, but ratification looms large

If any of the 25 EU members fails to ratify the Constitution in the next two weeks, it could sink.

The European Constitution was conceived as a signpost, pointing the continent toward greater unity and greater relevance for the European Union.

The charter finally agreed upon by EU leaders in Brussels Friday night, however, reflected more of their differences. And it did nothing to help break a continuing deadlock over who should take over the top EU job later this year.

Rather, the two-day summit of 25 EU member states highlighted divisions between those anxious to speed up the continent's political integration, such as France and Germany, and those who fear losing their identity in a federal Europe - Britain and Poland. The dividing line essentially mirrors the split between countries that opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq and those which supported it.

At a two day summit, 25 EU member states argued down to the last comma over the constitution, the product of 30 months of wrangling, which is designed to streamline the union, making it easier for its leaders to run and for its citizens to understand. But if any of the EU members fail to ratify it in the next two years, it could still sink.

The 300 page document creates a European Foreign Minister, simplifies the voting system, gives more power to the European Parliament, and limits the areas where one country can veto EU decisions.

Despite last minute Vatican lobbying, the Constitution makes no mention of God, nor of Europe's Christian heritage, which France and others said would violate the separation of church and state.

Other contentious issues were resolved when Britain won the right to veto EU decisions on taxation, defense, and social security, and when Poland and Spain agreed to new voting rules that give them less influence than they now enjoy.

To come into force, the Constitution must win approval in all 25 EU states by either parliamentary vote or referendum. This is by no means assured in the light of rising support for parties skeptical about EU integration, which was surprisingly high at European parliamentary elections last weekend.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has promised a referendum, faces a particularly uphill task: 57 percent of Britons oppose the Constitution, according to a poll last week.

The mood of triumph at the deal on the Constitution was soon overshadowed, however, when the summit could not agree on a successor to Romano Prodi, president of the European Union's executive body.

Britain nixed two candidates backed by France and Germany, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, on the grounds that they were too 'federalist,' and sympathetic to much closer integration among EU members.

France refused to countenance the candidacy of Chris Patten, the British European Commissioner for External Affairs, because Britain has not switched to the euro, the common European currency, and is thus not a core EU member in French eyes.

A new summit will have to convene before the end of the month to settle the issue, since all three leading candidates have withdrawn their names from the race. The EU's current security and foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, may prove an acceptable compromise, analysts suggest.

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