After two days of rhetorical posturing in public and acrimonious haggling behind closed doors, leaders of the 25 European Union nations failed to reach a budgetary compromise early Saturday and prepared to return home even more divided and uncertain about Europe's future.
Emerging after a final attempt to bridge the gap collapsed, the leaders of the two main opposing sides, France and Britain, denounced each other in unusually angry terms. French President Jacques Chirac declared that "Europe is in a serious crisis" and put the blame squarely on Britain and other countries that blocked a proposed budget. He cited "the egotism of certain countries."
"It's a vision of a weakened Europe that emerged," he said during a news conference after the talks collapsed.
But at a separate news conference British Prime Minister Tony Blair made clear he was fed up with listening to Chirac's claim to speak for the European Union. "I'm afraid I'm not prepared to have someone tell me that theirs is the only view of what Europe is," said a bristling Blair. "Europe isn't owned by anybody. Europe is owned by all of us."
Coming just weeks after voters in France and the Netherlands dealt a fatal blow to the union's proposed new constitution, the failure to find common economic ground plunged the E.U. further into a political sinkhole and raised new doubts about its ability to find its way out.
Blair vetoed a final agreement on a proposed budget for the years 2007 through 2013 because it would have committed Britain to a reduction in the annual rebate, currently about $6 billion, that it receives as a portion of the funds it pays into the E.U.'s treasury.
The Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, which are among the E.U.'s largest per-capita contributors, also opposed the budget. Their leaders complained that their countries paid too much in and received too little from the organization. Spain joined in because it argued that it needed more funding for its poorest regions.
Opponents of the budget said there was no reason for a final decision to be reached at this summit -- E.U. spending will continue unaffected for now. Others said it was crucial for the E.U. to take a united stand, if only to show skeptics that members were still committed to a united Europe despite the recent referendum defeats.
Chirac, stung at home by the referendum defeat of the constitution he had championed, targeted Britain's annual rebate in the often tendentious session of the leaders. Blair insisted that Chirac agree to a reduction in the $13 billion in price supports that French farmers receive each year.
All during the afternoon and into the evening, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country holds the union's rotating presidency, journeyed from office to office in the vast, ultra-modern headquarters of the European Council, an E.U. governing body.
They held one-on-one sessions with leader after leader, seeking to forge a face-saving deal that would allow the heads of government to claim they had dedicated themselves again to a united future.
The day began with the two sides staking out seemingly irreconcilable positions on each other's subsidies. Each side had a strong case against the other's windfall.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher negotiated the rebate in 1984 at a time when Britain ranked in the lower-middle of the European pack in terms of per-capita income. Now the British are near the top. The French were not the only E.U. members to argue that it was unjust for Britain to continue receiving the rebate, which Chirac contemptuously labeled "the British check." The payments are subsidized in part by Poland, Hungary and other cash-starved Eastern European nations that are the most recent countries to join the union.
The British pointed out, however, that under the Common Agricultural Policy, 40 percent of the E.U. annual budget goes to farmers who account for only 5 percent of the union's population and 2 percent of its jobs. Blair's official spokesman told reporters that in contrast, only 4 percent goes toward research and development that could help Europe maintain a competitive advantage over rising economic powers such as China and India.
Behind the arguments was a deeper ideological conflict. The British and their allies in Eastern Europe and Denmark want the European Union to further reduce trade and employment barriers and adopt more free market principles.
France and some of its allies, meanwhile, reject what they characterize as the "Anglo-Saxon economic model" and want to preserve social values such as a shorter workweek, high welfare benefits and restrictions to prevent low-paid workers from Eastern Europe from flooding the Western member countries and undercutting the higher salaries there.
Chirac, a former French agriculture minister, insisted that farm subsidy payments were untouchable and an essential component of Europe's prosperity. The real problem, he said, was that "the United Kingdom refused to contribute its fair and reasonable share to the cost of enlargement," the expansion of the E.U. from 15 to 25 members last year.
But Blair said Chirac and other leaders were ignoring the meaning of the referendum defeats. The E.U. needed to heed people's fears about globalization and economic stagnation, he said. "This is a moment when Europe has to take measures of fundamental change and reform to reconnect its fundamental politics to the priorities and concerns of people in Europe," Blair said. "The no votes in the referendums cannot be ignored."
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who took part in Friday's bruising session, said he was astonished and dismayed at the bitter tone, which he called "pathetic and embarrassing."
"I hate to see grown men bickering at each other," Ahern told reporters. "I'd like to see something more constructive."