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EU: Summit To Focus On Terror, Constitution

Boosting the fight against terrorism and achieving a breakthrough in the European Union's stalled constitution talks will dominate the bloc's two-day summit, which starts in Brussels today. The economy, traditionally central at the EU's spring summits, will this time take a back seat.

Brussels, 25 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The shockwaves of the 11 March terrorist attacks in Madrid continue to be felt in the European Union. The attacks have forced the fight against terrorism to center stage at the EU's spring summit, traditionally devoted to the economy.

Less directly, the attacks also have helped revive stalled talks over the bloc's constitution, again at the cost of the economy. Spain's Socialist prime minister-elect -- voted into office immediately after the attacks -- has said his country will drop earlier objections to a deal. Last December, Spain and Poland together rejected compromise, angling for privileged voting powers. Now, Poland, too, has signaled it will back down.

The EU's sluggishness is widely ascribed to a lack of reforms. Germany and France, among the bloc's largest economies, have long dragged their feet over liberalizing labor markets and reforming their costly social systems.
The economy will come a distant third on the summit agenda, with many EU leaders admitting the ambition of catching up with the United States by 2010 cannot be achieved.

On terrorism, EU leaders will agree on an ambitious set of goals. They involve a mixture of speeding up the implementation of existing measures and deepening future cooperation.

Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, yesterday said terrorism must be fully eradicated, but he drew a clear line between EU and U.S. strategies.

"Terrorism is the biggest threat since World War II,” Prodi said. “We have to put all our efforts, our determination and our strength, and we have to act -- and this would be the objective of the summit -- with our resources, technical, and human, to completely eradicate terrorism. No less, no more. Certainly, as we have said in the past, we do not only need force, but equally political intelligence, understanding."

Prodi went on to say the war in Iraq has not helped the fight against terrorism. He also said resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict is vital for the long-term success of the campaign against terrorism.

Summit plans include the establishment of the office of a new counterterrorism chief, the strengthening of border controls, greater intelligence sharing, improved action to cut terrorist financing and recruitment, and measures to protect transport and population.

Member states also are expected to commit themselves to putting existing legislation into practice by July 2005.

The summit will also consider a new EU initiative for the Wider Middle East. Diplomats say the bloc's leaders will stress their willingness to listen to governments in the region. Accordingly, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, will travel to an Arab League summit in Tunis early next week.

On constitutional reform, the EU's Irish presidency will tell heads of state and government tonight that it believes a deal on the constitution can be struck by early summer. This is widely acknowledged to be the result of the change of government in Spain. The incoming government has said it agrees, in principle, to ceding some of its voting power -- a necessary element in any compromise. Poland has indicated it could follow suit, removing the last obstacle from the path of a "dual-majority" voting system.

Under a "dual-majority" system, EU decisions in areas where national vetoes do not apply are taken by a majority of member states representing a majority of the EU population.

Yesterday, Commission President Prodi urged EU member states not to set the dual-majority thresholds too high. He criticized many member states' excessive concern with being able to block decisions.

"I repeat, the objective of constitutional reform is to make decisions, not to impede decisions. Yet, there is a pathological fixation of the majority with blocking minorities," Prodi said.

EU sources say a final deal on the new constitution will not take place before late June. Some member states had hoped the constitution would be in place in time for European Parliament elections in mid-June.

The bloc has also given up the ambitious plan agreed in Lisbon in 2000 to become the world's most dynamic economy by 2010.

"As things stand, there is a risk of not attaining -- if there is no change -- I believe it would be more honest to admit that we will not catch up with Japan and the United States as prescribed by [the] Lisbon [summit]," Prodi said.

The EU's sluggishness is widely ascribed to a lack of reforms. Germany and France, among the bloc's largest economies, have long dragged their feet over liberalizing labor markets and reforming their costly social systems.