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Constitution, a step towards uniting Europe

BRUSSELS, JUNE 19. The agreement reached by European leaders on Friday on the European Constitution is the latest step in the gradual but creaking process toward a more united continent.

Under the agreement, for the first time, the continent — through the 25-nation European Union — would have a president, a foreign minister and a single rule book to replace the web of treaties that govern the complex relationships among the Union's member countries. But the Constitution still faces a hard test: ratification by all 25 members, which could be exceedingly difficult in the face of strong scepticism in some countries and voter apathy. At least seven of the nations have decided to ratify the pact by referendum.

While the leaders toasted their success with champagne, the past two days were marked by dogged and at times polarised talks that ended in compromises many of participants strongly criticised. Many of the compromises limited the scope of decision-making in sensitive areas such as taxation and social issues. Negotiators inserted what they called ``emergency brakes'' for countries worried about retaining their national prerogatives, notably Britain.

``We have to move at the pace of the slowest camel in the train,'' said John Palmer, director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

The Constitution is a legalistic document of nearly 350 articles — perhaps not what leaders had envisioned when they called for a ``more democratic, more transparent and more efficient'' system at a meeting two and a half years ago in Brussels. But it contains a string of innovations. Among them is creation of a European public prosecutor, a sort of nascent federal attorney-general who would be responsible for investigating and bringing to trial cases where the European Union's financial interests are at stake. According to officials, they could involve crimes like fraud in the E.U. budget or counterfeiting of euro notes and coins. Ultimately, the prosecutor could also be responsible for prosecuting ``serious crime having a cross-border dimension.''

There are also provisions for countries to take part in special combat units if they choose, an issue closely watched by Washington; and for closer cooperation on military procurement.

``This is definitely a step forward,'' said Marco Incerti, research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. ``They have increased transparency and simplified the institutions to some extent.'' With its demands to keep a national veto on a wide range of issues including taxation and foreign policy, Britain was pitted against France and Germany, whose delegations were grinding their teeth at what they saw as their neighbour's intransigence.

It will take legal experts about two months to draw up an official treaty in the Union's 20 languages based on the Friday agreement, before heads of state and Government will reconvene to sign it. Then the text needs to be ratified in each country, a process that could take at least six months, officials estimate. The earliest the Constitution could come into effect is next spring.

Among the innovations in the Constitution that reconciled the interests of large and small countries is a ``double-majority'' voting system that takes account of the number of countries backing an initiative as well as the population they represent. A deadlock was broken on Friday over the threshold necessary for a ``yes'' vote on a piece of legislation when Irish negotiators raised the minimum needed to 15 countries representing 65 per cent of the population. The threshold is even higher under special circumstances.

Under the Constitution, the Union would have a foreign minister to conduct ``common foreign and security policy'' and operate a nascent European diplomatic corps.

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