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EU constitution talks collapse

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.

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Attempts by European leaders to close the deal on the European Union's first constitution collapse in a row over voting rights. CNN's Robin Oakley reports. (December 13)
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Brussels (Belgium)
Silvio Berlusconi

BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- Attempts by European leaders to close the deal on the European Union's first constitution have collapsed in a row over relative voting rights.

The present and future members of the EU could not come to terms on how the votes are distributed among the members, the Italian presidency said on Saturday.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said "disagreement was total."

"Hard positions came out from a number of countries, which led us to understand that, right now, it's just not possible to reach agreement," he said.

EU Parliament President Pat Cox said the failure to reach a decision represented "a setback, but not a calamity."

Members had hoped to resolve several contentious issues over how the EU would conduct itself after the 15-nation organization expands to 25 next spring.

But smaller nations, led by Spain and future member Poland, battled to retain the status quo, a complicated system agreed to three years ago in Nice, France, that give them 27 votes each and to larger countries France, Germany, Italy and Britain 29 votes each.

Britain backed Spain and Poland on the voting issue against a proposal backed by Germany and France that would have created a "double majority" system. Under this system future EU proposals would become law if supported by at least half the EU countries, including at least 60 percent of the population.

The smaller countries argue that the proposal essentially gives the larger countries carte blanche in the EU, while the larger countries argue that a constitution must make voting less complicated and more democratic on the basis of population.

Berlusconi said: "Spain and Poland did show openness, and we discussed with them some possible alternatives for change. They found the alternatives proposed valid. We proposed them to the other countries and the other countries found them not to be suitable."

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern assumes the presidency -- which rotates every six months -- on January 1. He said he would not revisit the issue until at least March to give the members time to think over how to resolve Saturday's impasse.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "We shouldn't get any agreement other than a good one. There's no point in going through the night and get any old agreement and ... so it is, in my view, entirely sensible to take the time to get it right."

French President Jacques Chirac insisted the EU was not in crisis.

"We have institutions that work, we have pressed ahead with enlargement which will take place on May 1," Chirac told a news conference. "There is no drama or crisis with a capital 'C'."

The larger countries were also seeking to end the six-month rotating presidency of the organization and replace it with a president elected to a four or six year term, and to limit the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, to 15 members.

The constitution also aims to strengthen the bloc's foreign relations position and possibly pave the way for a common defense policy.

The posts of high representative for common foreign and security policy, currently held by Javier Solana, and commissioner for external affairs, currently held by Chris Patten, are to be combined into a foreign ministry.

Britain, however, insists on veto power over any foreign or defense policy matters, and the United States is nervous that EU defense plans would undermine NATO. And four non-NATO countries -- Ireland, Sweden, Austria and Finland -- worry that their neutrality could be compromised.

Religion has even crept into the discussion, with strongly Roman Catholic countries such as Spain and Malta urging a mention of Christianity in the constitution's preamble -- which currently reads, "Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe ..."

France and other countries reject that idea, particularly because Muslim Turkey could become a member at some point in the future.

-- CNN's Robin Oakley contributed to this report.

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