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EU summit remains deadlocked

Blair (left) with Berlusconi, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw with Italian counterpart Franco Frattini (right).
Blair (left) with Berlusconi, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw with Italian counterpart Franco Frattini (right).

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BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- The EU's summit to agree its first constitution remains deadlocked as leaders battle over their nations' voting rights.

"We are still far away from a solution; the rifts are still wide and deep," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told German TV Friday night, The Associated Press reported.

The stand-off pitting France and Germany on one side and Spain and Poland on the other could drag the two-day meeting into Saturday night.

Italy's President Silvio Berlusconi, who is chairing the summit, said the leaders had set themselves a deadline of Sunday morning to get a deal.

Berlusconi skipped a formal dinner Friday night to hold bilateral talks that were due to continue into the early hours of Saturday.

Italian sources said a revised text would be presented Saturday morning to the summit, which brings together the 15 existing EU members and 10 countries due to join on May 1.

But an indication of the deep divisions came in a press conference where French President Jacques Chirac told reporters the position of Spain and Poland was "incompatible with the vision we have of an enlarged Europe," Reuters reported.

Spain's Foreign Minister Ana Palacio rejected this, telling a briefing that Europe "is built by everyone" and that no country, whether it was a founder, the most populous, the least populous, or the most recent, could "kidnap the European interest."

A last-ditch meeting between Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to seek a way out of the impasse brought "no breakthrough, no real movement," diplomats told Reuters.

"The positions are a long, long way apart," Blair told reporters. "It is important to try and get an agreement. It may well not be possible."

Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing led efforts to draft the constitution.
Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing led efforts to draft the constitution.

The constitution, in the works for a year, seeks to strengthen cooperation on defense, foreign policy, immigration and other issues in an effort to give the EU a political voice to match its economic clout as 10 new members join on May 1. (Key issues)

The core of the constitution debate is how much power the four biggest states -- Germany, France, Britain and Italy -- will wield and how much integration EU leaders can swallow.

Spain and Poland, the fifth and sixth biggest countries, are determined to hang on to voting rights that give them almost as many votes as the big four inside EU councils. Germany and France are leading the battle to get those rights pegged back.

Britain, meanwhile, is fighting to prevent Brussels having the final say on issues ranging from foreign policy to taxation.

All 25 nations must ratify the constitution for it to take effect, and leaders have warned they are willing to walk away rather than give the thumbs up to the constitution as it stands.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said a "real battle" was going on between member states with much of the population of Europe having little patience on the EU's deliberations. In a recent poll 50 percent of Europeans said they did not think the EU was a good thing, he said.

The summiteers briefly put aside wrangling over the constitution to agree a deal clinched by its main military powers, France, Germany and Britain, on a planning cell for crisis management operations, which was watered down during weeks of negotiation amid U.S. suspicions of its impact on NATO.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson welcomed the agreement, saying: "This will be a good deal for the EU and for NATO." (Full story)

The leaders also endorsed a multi-billion-euro plan to encourage public and private investment into transport and research projects in a bid to revitalize the European economy.

But Germany and the Netherlands squared up for a fight over budget rules, with Berlin rejecting a Dutch proposal for enforcement of the regime in the European Court of Justice.

"It's a very important issue and we want to have a result," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told reporters.

European Union heads of state and governments also endorsed on Friday a 62-billion euro plan to encourage public and private investment into transport and research projects in a bid to revitalize the bloc's economy. (Full story)


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