European leaders sign EU constitution

Friday, October 29th 2004, 8:58 am
By: News On 6

ROME (AP) _ European leaders on Friday signed the EU's first constitution, a diplomatic triumph they hope will give the union a sharper international profile and speed up decision-making in a club now embracing 25 nations.

The treaty was the result of 28 months of sometimes acrimonious debate between the 25 EU governments and now faces ratification in national parliaments. At least nine EU nations also plan to put it to a referendum, increasing chances that it may not take effect in 2007 as scheduled.

A ``no'' result in any country would stop the constitution in its tracks.

The EU leaders signed the document at the Campidoglio, a Michaelangelo-designed complex of buildings on Rome's Capitoline Hill, along with the leaders of Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Croatia _ four candidates for EU membership.

French President Jacques Chirac told reporters the constitution deepens ``the roots of peace and democracy on our continent. For centuries and centuries we have fought each other and we have paid heavily with tears, blood, and waste.''

The event was overshadowed by a dispute over the makeup of the next EU executive _ particularly over a conservative Italian nominee, Rocco Buttiglione, who is opposed by a large segment of the 732-member European Parliament.

On the margins of the signing, the leaders sought to resolve the dispute over Buttiglione, who was nominated as justice commissioner. The conservative Catholic and papal confidant raised concerns by saying he believed homosexuality is a sin and that women are better off married and at home.

The constitution foresees simpler voting rules to end decision gridlock in a club that ballooned to 25 members this year and plans to absorb half a dozen more in the years ahead.

It includes new powers for the European Parliament and ends national vetoes in 45 new policy areas _ including judicial and police cooperation, education and economic policy _ but not in foreign and defense policy, social security, taxation or cultural matters.

The constitution was signed in the sala degli Orazi e Curiazi, the same spectacular hall in a Renaissance palazzo where in 1957 six nations _ Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg _ signed the union's founding treaty.

EU leaders signed the constitution in alphabetical order by country, led by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

``The seeming madness of our founding fathers has become a splendid reality,'' Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier, said in a speech earlier. ``Never in history have we seen an example of nations voluntarily deciding to exercise their sovereign powers jointly in the exclusive interests of their peoples, thus overcoming age-old impulses of rivalry and distrust.''

The EU constitution, which includes a charter of fundamental rights, marks a new chapter in European history giving the continent ``greater capacity for making Europe more secure, more prosperous, more just,'' said Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch leader whose nation holds the EU presidency.

Still, the internal turmoil over the makeup of the next EU executive commission cast a shadow over the ceremony.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he counts on the EU assembly and Portugal's Jose Manuel Barroso, the next European Commission president, to resolve the issue within two weeks.

``I will not speak of a crisis if within 14 days the matter is resolved,'' Schroeder told reporters.

Chirac said the EU ``needs a strong and independent commission capable of working as soon as possible on the problems that the European Union faces.''

On Wednesday, Barroso withdrew his team from a vote in the European parliament, asking for more time to make changes.

If Buttiglione goes, others will likely go, too, to preserve a political balance that will secure European Parliament approval for the new EU executive.