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Summit to promote European unity devolves into divisiveness

BRUSSELS, Belgium—Europe's leaders—29 presidents and prime ministers—on Thursday began a two-day crisis summit aimed at getting the European Union back on track after voters in two nations rejected a proposed EU constitution.

But further division seemed far more likely as the leaders confronted a variety of disputes, ranging from demands that Great Britain forgo an annual payment from the EU to anger among citizens who believe that EU has ignored their interests.

The first casualty of the meeting was the EU constitution. Leaders emerging from Thursday's meetings said the group had agreed to postpone any further consideration of the constitution, which was to have been ratified by November 2006. It was unclear, however, how long the delay would last.

A formal announcement of the summit's decisions is expected Friday, though some here say the meeting may stretch into Saturday.

Behind the scenes, people already are calling the meeting the Humpty Dumpty summit and worrying that this continent's politically wounded leaders will be unable to put Europe together again.

"You can't yet call it a breakup, but it's close," said Dutch European Union expert Rob Boudewijn. "The headline is obvious: `Summit Disaster.'"

Officially, this was to be a budget meeting. The leaders of the EU, which last summer expanded from 15 to 25 nations, were to determine how much money would be needed in 2007 through 2013.

Two weeks ago, however, the focus changed.

First, France and then the Netherlands rejected the constitution, both by wide margins. The vote was seen largely as a rejection of the EU's rapid expansion and its top-down operating style.

The vote crippled French President Jacques Chirac, just as a local election in Germany showed that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had lost voters' faith, weakening two of the EU's biggest supporters.

Then, Chirac—in an attempt to distract attention from his own failings, according to the British press—brought up the annual EU payments to Great Britain. Negotiated in the 1980s, the payments, close to $6 billion a year, were to compensate for the fact that Great Britain contributed far more money to the EU than it gets back.

Chirac argued, and many in Europe agreed, that the payments made sense when the British economy was struggling, but now that it's in the EU, they should be phased out.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair countered that he wouldn't give up the rebate unless the EU changed its farm subsidies policy—which accounts for 40 percent of EU spending. The suggestion was a direct shot at the French, who benefit the most from the policy.

Meanwhile, complaints have grown about the EU's economic underpinnings. Some Dutch are wondering why their country contributes more money, per capita, to the EU than anyone else. Some Germans are noting that, despite their country's slumping economy, it's still the EU's largest total donor. Some Italians are questioning their country's use of the euro as its currency.

Rancor is high across the continent. "Who needs the Brits," sniffed Austria's Der Standard newspaper.

Atzo Nicolai, the Dutch minister for European Affairs, said Thursday that the divisions will make the work of the summit difficult, at best.

"It means that right now more than ever we need to come to some real decisions this weekend," he said. "At the same time, finding these solutions is more difficult because of the divisions."

"There is no solution to these debates in sight. The gaps are too large," said Boudewijn, a senior fellow at the European studies program at Clingendael Institute, a Dutch research center. "The constitution is dead, the budget is impossible, and, if nobody backs off their support (payments), the union will soon be bankrupt. The EU is a disaster right now."

Julie Smith, the deputy director of Cambridge University's Centre of International Studies, said a budget agreement would take real leadership—"and right now it's just the dialogue of the deaf."

But she did see two positives coming out of the troubles: The top-down style of the past should be dead, and Europeans have started to debate what they want from an integrated Europe.

Even though Chirac has insisted that he won't budge on farm money and Blair has said British rebates aren't up for discussion, there has to be some room for compromise, Smith said.

"Interestingly enough, the only leader with the capital right now to sell compromise at home is Blair," she said. "Whether he will or not, and whether he will do so quickly, might have a lot to do with the future success."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050616 EU inflation, 20050616 EU budget

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