EU seeks to keep lid on divisions

The European Union battled on Monday to maintain some semblance of unity despite poisonous rifts opened by its Constitution crisis, as the bloc’s new fault lines came under the spotlight at a summit with the United States.

But the acrimony triggered by the charter crisis and the breakdown of budget talks continued as one French minister accused Britain—widely blamed for the collapse of a summit last week—of not sharing Europe’s “vision”.

French European Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna made the charge as Britain prepares to take over the EU’s rotating presidency next month, facing the tough task of picking up the pieces after last week’s disastrous summit.

“Great Britain must assume its responsibilities by taking into account what the majority of Europeans want,” she told national television on Monday.

“If it doesn’t do that, we will tell it to do so.”

The budget deadlock and shelving of plans for the Constitution at a summit last week have plunged the half-century old grouping into one of its deepest crises ever.

“The public picture of acrimony and division at the summit underlined that the union is indeed at an historic turning point,” said John Palmer from the European Policy Centre thinktank in Brussels.

Most analysts believe much will depend on political developments in the EU heavyweight states.

French President Jacques Chirac, who has been badly weakened by his country’s rejection of the EU Constitution, will probably leave the political scene in 2007.

In Germany, the other half of the traditional motor for European integration, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has also been left a lame duck by a recent state election and is almost certain to be ousted later this year.

Meanwhile Britain’s tenure as EU president, which begins on July 1, will prove whether Prime Minister Tony Blair will be able to reunite the bloc, given that many of its members were aligned against him over the budget.

The decision to postpone the deadline for ratifying the Constitution, after it was rejected by voters in France and The Netherlands, saw some countries drop immediate plans to move forward on the charter.

However Luxembourg, holder of the EU presidency until the end of the month, appeared ready to go ahead with plans to hold its referendums on July 10.

Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker says he will resign if it is rejected.

After Britain and France’s clash over the bloc’s funding for 2007-2013—with London clinging to its expensive rebate and Paris tightly clutching its farm subsidies—the next six months look anything but serene.

“The British vision is not shared by the majority of European countries,” said Colonna.

Against this backdrop of domestic turmoil, the heads of the European Union’s institutions were due to meet Bush later on Monday to discuss issues of international importance like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

After the EU summit ended in chaos overnight on Friday, Juncker noted bitterly: “We will go to Washington to explain to the president of the United States in detail the vigour and strength of Europe.”

The United States, whose relations with the EU were deeply strained by the 2003 Iraq war, is taking little comfort in the deepening political woes of its transatlantic allies.

“We are confident that this partnership will continue to grow and to be put to use in the service of great goals,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently. - Sapa-AFP

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