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Four nations urge more debate on EU constitution

Saturday, June 21, 2003

PORTO CARRAS, Greece -- Italy and three other nations at the European Union summit pushed Friday to reopen a contentious debate about mentioning God in the EU's new constitution.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, promised to block attempts to use the charter to transform Europe into a "federal superstate."

As riot police used tear gas and clubs to disperse protesters, the assembled EU leaders also acknowledged the importance of relations with the United States and endorsed a common strategy for dealing with global security threats, including terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, chairman of the constitutional convention, presented the EU leaders with a draft charter hammered out by his commission over more than a year. He warned leaders against wholesale changes in the draft, which could unravel hard-fought compromises over the text.

Member governments will begin a final review of the text in October with the aim of having it ready for signature by next spring and in effect in 2005. However, it appeared several governments wanted changes in the text and are preparing for long negotiations.

Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Spain want to include a reference to God and Christianity because of the religion's influence on European history. Giscard d'Estaing disregarded an appeal by Pope John Paul II and left out the reference as secularists in the convention had demanded.

Instead, the preamble includes a reference to the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe."

"The issue was if we should specify religion," Giscard d'Estaing said. "I was in favor but bowed to a decision of the majority. There was no consensus in favor of adding the word 'Christian."'

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said his country would push for a reference to Christianity when it assumes the six-month EU presidency on July 1. Frattini said Europe should not "deny what is a fact of European history, the Christian tradition."

A more difficult obstacle to final approval is the insistence by Britain and other countries that the distribution of power in the EU not infringe on national sovereignty or give unfair advantages to large states such as Germany and France.

Britain is anxious to limit the number of issues that the EU can decide by majority vote instead of allowing individual members to use vetoes.

"Taxation, foreign policy, defense policy and our own British borders will remain the prerogative of our national government and national parliament," Blair told British reporters. "That is immensely important."

The leaders also endorsed a strategy paper that said good relations between Europe and the United States are "irreplaceable" despite severe strains caused by disagreements with France, Germany and other EU members over the Iraq war.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who drafted the strategy paper, said the EU wants "to continue working in a very solid partnership with the U.S." French President Jacques Chirac also spoke of the need for "a strong trans-Atlantic link."

Outside the meeting at a heavily guarded seaside resort hotel, hundreds of demonstrators led by masked anarchists broke away from about 10,000 peaceful marchers and hurled firebombs, rocks and bottles at police. The protests were held behind a set of hills more three miles away from the summit.


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