A House Divided: EU Struggles to Lay New Foundation ; Debates Intensify over Voting Influence, Mention of God as Expanding Europe Considers a New Constitution Friday

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Bitter quarrels over a new constitution threaten to dim hopes that an expanding European Union could speak with a stronger common voice on the international stage.

Spain and upstart EU newcomer Poland have fought hard against Europe's titans to resist voting reforms that would cut their influence. The issue could torpedo a two-day summit that opens Friday in Brussels, designed to pave the way for 10 new members to join a streamlined union next year.

Failure could tempt the EU's larger founders, such as Germany and France, to forge their own path independently of their neighbors.

Hints to that effect from Paris and Berlin may be no more than negotiating bluster, say some analysts. But the pre-summit private breakfast that the British, German, and French leaders were due to hold Friday raised questions among smaller EU members fearful of being steamrollered.

The mood has been soured by veiled threats by Germany and France that they would not look favorably on requests for money from Poland and Spain when the next EU budget is drawn up, if Madrid and Warsaw continue to block reform of the union's voting system.

Behind the harsh words lie deeper concerns by some of the smaller EU members, including several Eastern European nations joining next year, that their voices will be drowned out by their larger and more powerful neighbors, Germany, France, Britain, and Italy.

Those fears were fueled two weeks ago, when France and Germany managed to persuade EU finance ministers to let them violate, without punishment, the 'Stability and Growth Pact' - the rules on responsible economic behavior that underpin the euro. A number of ministers felt they had been bullied by the euro zone's two heavyweights, and recalled how the two countries last year stitched up a deal on agricultural subsidies between them ahead of an EU meeting called to debate them.

Piling on the pressure, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on a visit to Paris this week that the idea of a Franco-German union, which some French politicians have proposed as a way forward should European unity dissolve, was "a vision of the future, perhaps long-term, but interesting."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warned recently against yielding to Spanish and Polish demands for maintaining a system that will make it easy with 25 members to create 'blocking minorities' to forestall action. Such a situation could force countries wanting to deepen cooperation to act outside the EU framework, he said. "We will have the opposite of what we want, namely a multispeed EU where cracks will appear," Mr. Fischer said.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who led the two-year constitutional convention that drew up a draft charter, suggested last week that if European heads of government approved a flawed constitution "I do think we would see the gradual falling apart of the European Union. …


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