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EU leaders reach deal on replacing constitution

In a deal reached at 4:30 in the morning, the leaders of the 27 members of the European Union agreed Saturday to negotiate a treaty by the end of this year to replace the defunct proposed constitution.

The breakthrough on the plan, which calls for the new treaty to be ratified by mid-2009, came after Poland stepped back from a dramatic threat to veto any agreement, prompting a counterthreat from Germany, which held the chairmanship of the meeting, that it would continue negotiations anyway. At the height of tension during two days of tense diplomacy here, a last-minute meeting and telephone calls organized by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany helped to persuade Poland, one of the newest members of the EU, that its intransigence could leave it isolated.

Collapse had appeared all but inevitable after Poland repeatedly objected to a proposed new voting system based on population, arguing that it would favor larger countries like Germany. Warsaw shocked its European Union colleagues by invoking Nazi Germany at the meeting and arguing that it deserved political compensation for its losses in World War II. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland argued, „If Poland had not had to live through the years of 1939-45, Poland would today be looking at the demographics of a country of 66 million.” The Polish delegation even brought a team of 10 mathematicians to Brussels to ensure that it was not duped into agreeing to an unfavorable voting system. Failure would have damaged Europe's aspirations to improve its stature on the world stage at a time when the union is striving to become an equal partner with Washington and play a leading role on global issues like climate change, the Middle East and an assertive Russia.

Speaking to reporters, Blair said: „This gives us the chance to move on. It gives us the chance to concentrate on issues to do with the economy, climate change, defense, energy. It allows us to move on to things that are ultimately more important.” Failure here would have also badly damaged Merkel, who had staked Germany's prestige on a successful outcome now, when it holds the Union's rotating presidency. She has recently been praised for her stewardship of a Group of 8 summit meeting this month at a Baltic Sea resort, where she successfully pressed President George W. Bush on global warming. A major policy failure in Brussels would have focused attention on her failings at home, including lagging economic reforms. Following Merkel's diplomacy, Warsaw accepted a compromise delaying the introduction of the voting system until 2014 and additional measures protecting smaller nations from being outvoted.

Key obstacles to a new treaty began to fall away late Friday. Britain, which had also threatened a veto, accepted formation of a new office for foreign policy, withdrawing reservations over the plan after negotiators scrapped the title „foreign minister,” which offended London's sensitivities about preserving its national sovereignty. Britain won further changes, including guarantees that its employment and social security laws would not be affected by a European Union Charter of Rights and that it would not be outvoted on justice and home affairs questions. Still, most of the diplomatic activity was focused on Poland's veto threat, which posed the risk of continuing the paralysis that has long afflicted the effort to negotiate a new European Union treaty. Poland's leaders were left in no doubt that they could also provoke a backlash against their nation, which has emerged as one of the bloc's most difficult members. European officials have warned in recent days that Poland, which has demanded European Union support in recent disagreements with Russia, could find itself isolated and could put at risk the generous subsidies it received from the EU. Sarkozy emerged as a pivotal figure, and he engaged in furious diplomacy to try to persuade Poland. Merkel negotiated behind the scenes, making public appearances only rarely. Sarkozy said psychological and historical factors made relations between France and Poland less tense than relations between Poland and Germany. (iht.com)