European Leaders Gather to Restore a Union Divided

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 17, 2005

BRUSSELS, June 16 -- The leaders of the European Union's 25 member states sought to glue the pieces of the organization's shattered consensus back together Thursday night, issuing a unanimous call for a "period of reflection" of one to two years on the proposed constitution that voters in France and the Netherlands recently rejected.

The statement, issued after a lengthy dinner meeting, left unresolved the question of what would ultimately happen to the document, which was effectively vetoed by the two no votes. It came at the opening of a two-day summit here that will also address budgetary disagreements among several nations, including France and Britain.

Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, which holds the union's rotating presidency, said the ratification process should continue in other European countries because the constitution could not be renegotiated. "There will not be a better treaty," he told reporters, but added, "We cannot go ahead as if nothing had happened."

Ireland, Denmark and the Czech Republic announced Thursday that they were postponing referendums on the constitution, which 10 countries have ratified.

British officials, who have suspended their country's planned referendum, said E.U. leaders needed time to come to terms with the fact that the treaty was dead. "It is not for any one country to declare this treaty dead," Douglas Alexander, Britain's minister for European affairs, told reporters, even while making clear that the British government could draw no other conclusion.

The fate of the defeated constitution was one of two major issues facing E.U. leaders at the summit. The other involves money.

French President Jacques Chirac has singled out for criticism an annual rebate that returns to the British government about $6 billion of the funds it pays to the E.U. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has responded to Chirac by saying he would be willing to revisit the issue if the French would review the Common Agricultural Policy that provides French farmers with about $13 billion in annual subsidies.

Each side knows the other will not budge. "These are diversionary tactics on both sides," said Charles Grant, director of the London-based Center for European Reform.

After a raucous meeting of E.U. foreign ministers last weekend, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declared that the French were "deluded" if they thought the rebate was the union's central problem and added that the current farm system "perversely" aided wealthier countries such as France. Chirac retaliated by canceling a joint news conference when Blair visited Paris, leaving him to brief reporters alone at the British ambassador's residence.

The tit-for-tat public rhetoric and snubs are just the superficial signs of what analysts and officials concede is a more fundamental conflict. For years, they say, Britain and France and their respective allies have differed over widening vs. deepening: whether the E.U. should continue to expand, allowing more former East European satellites of the old Soviet Union to become members, or focus on deepening the political and economic ties among current members. Britain has taken the former view, France and Germany the latter.

In the late 1990s, the two camps agreed to do both: Ten new member states were eventually added, while borders and economic barriers between all members were further lowered. But the results of the constitution referendums in France and the Netherlands were a stunning setback to that compromise.

Among other things, voters in both countries were expressing anxieties over the E.U.'s enlargement, fearing the prospect of millions of cheaply paid East European workers flooding the more affluent West. They were also showing displeasure with the euro, the European currency, which has not succeeded in reviving the economies of some of the continent's largest states. And voters revealed their sense of alienation from their own political leaders and the E.U.'s unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels.

The leaders were to continue debating the budget impasse Friday. Many are hobbled by weakened standing at home. Chirac has been seriously wounded by the referendum defeat, while Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany has called an early election, scheduled for September, that opinion polls suggest he may lose because of the country's poor economic performance.

Blair, whose government takes over the E.U. presidency on July 1, won reelection in May but with a much-reduced majority. He has declared this, his third term, to be his last. His support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq greatly damaged his domestic standing, making it difficult for him to persuade Britons to back the constitution or to adopt the euro as their currency.

Arriving in Brussels on Thursday, Schroeder pleaded with E.U. members to make concessions, saying a budget deal would be possible only "if everyone moves."

But the leaders of Sweden and the Netherlands declared upon arrival that there was no way they would consent to the budgetary plan proposed by E.U. officials.

Chirac, meanwhile, cast doubt on further enlargement of the E.U., and E.U. officials announced without comment that a scheduled meeting with the leaders of Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Turkey -- all candidates for membership -- had been canceled.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company