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Leaders urged to back stronger EU

Schroeder's plans have not been welcomed by Britain and France  

BERLIN, Germany -- European socialist leaders have been urged by Germany to back its call for stronger central powers for the European Union.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pushed the leaders to debate the idea more as they began their two-day Party of European Socialists' meeting in Berlin.

"We strengthen our European institutions and rigorously further develop the European integration process," Schroeder said.

Schroeder called for the creation of a European government and a reformed and more powerful two-tier European Parliament.

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His ideas were contained in a draft document for Germany's Socialist Democratic Party.

His idea has received a cool welcome from France, Britain and other countries suspicious that a centralised Europe may be German-dominated.

"I hope that this debate on the future will be enriched in the coming weeks and months by substantial contributions from as many as possible of the social democratic parties of Europe," Schroeder said.

He also stressed the success of the EU in retaining the "multiplicity" of national identities in Europe.

His plan would make the EU more democratic and responsive to its citizens, he said. He insisted that the EU is not about "hegemony or dominance" of any one nation.

He said the continent has a chance to become "a place of durable peace and growing prosperity."

"But we will not achieve this without clear orientation," he added. British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has played down Schroeder's proposal, cancelled his attendance last week amid speculation he is about to announce a general election for June 7.

Blair was represented by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who will succeed German Defence Minister Rudulf Scharping as PES leader during the biannual conference.

French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and Francesco Rutelli, who is leading the Italian centre left into Sunday's election, were present.

France, which takes a large amount of EU farm subsidies, strongly objects to German proposals to reform the payments, give control of the EU budget to the European Parliament and curb the power of member governments.

French Socialist Party spokesman Vincent Peillon said: "There is no urgency."

Schroeder's proposals are "useful" but his idea of relegating government leaders to a second chamber of European Parliament -- similar to Germany's two-chamber legislature -- is "not very credible," Peillon told Associated Press in Paris.

PES delegates will endorse a "Berlin Declaration" calling for reform of the EU to keep it viable after it expands into formerly Communist Eastern Europe.

But the plan is less detailed than suggestions put forward by Schroeder and his party.

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Party of European Socialists

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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