European nations OK anti-terror pact

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- European Union leaders Thursday picked a skilled politician with no experience in terrorism issues as the bloc's first anti-terror czar, moving to bolster the continent's defense after the deadly Madrid train bombings.

Gijs de Vries, who was born in New York and holds joint U.S.-Dutch citizenship, will coordinate work done by the EU's foreign affairs and interior departments in an echo of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The leaders also will study ways to streamline the sharing of information on threat groups, but they stayed away from establishing a European intelligence agency modeled after the CIA, proposed by Austria.

De Vries, a former deputy interior minister in the Netherlands, will start work Monday and report to Javier Solana, who heads the EU's foreign and security department.

"He has the right profile for the position," Solana said. "What is important is coordination. All the internal, domestic aspects of terrorism need to be tied in with the external, international aspects."

New constitution

In another major development, European Union leaders agreed Thursday to reopen talks on a European constitution that stalled last December in a bitter power struggle over voting rights.

The talks collapsed when Spain and Poland opposed a draft reducing their voting power. The documents must be agreed on by all 25 current and soon-to-be EU members.

Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson said the leaders decided unanimously to try again, with the aim of wrapping up a text by June 17. "There was firm support to start it again," he told reporters.

The appointment of de Vries was one of a series of emergency measures enacted by EU leaders in the wake of the Madrid bombings. Others included:

Improving cooperation among their police and intelligence services;

Enacting laws on an EU-wide arrest warrant;

Increasing border controls and tracking of phone records;

Cracking down faster on terrorist finances; and

Creating a European database of terror suspects.

"The threat of terrorism is a threat to our security, our democracy and our way of life in the European Union," said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. "We'll do everything in our power to protect our people from this threat."

Ahern chaired a meeting of presidents and prime ministers from 25 nations who gathered in a grim mood for a summit barely 24 hours after many of them joined tearful relatives of the 190 victims at a state funeral in Madrid.

A sense of embattled unity from the bombings has prompted EU nations to bury old differences that go beyond responses to terrorism. The leaders are expected to reopen talks on the EU's first constitution, three months after they broke down in acrimonious stalemate.

Symbolically, the leaders adopted one key article of the constitution ahead of the full text -- a NATO-style "solidarity clause" committing all members to help each other in the event of terror attacks.

Anti-terror experts say cooperation among intelligence services -- for example between France and Britain -- has paid dividends in thwarting attacks since Sept. 11.

However, wider coordination at European level has proved difficult because of differing legal standards, extradition delays and civil liberties concerns.

"The shortcomings and delays are unforgivable now after Madrid," said Romano Prodi, the EU Commission president. "The cultural obstacles to cooperation cannot continue."

In another measure, the Europeans will tell nations around the world that their economic relations with the EU will depend on cooperation in the fight against terror -- a potentially powerful tool since the EU is the world's biggest aid donor and largest trading bloc.

"We have to tell them, that in order to have good and solid relations with the European Union they have to contribute to the fight against terrorism," Solana said.

Optimism for a compromise on the constitution has surged since the March 14 election defeat of Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar's conservative party by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist, who is more eager to find a breakthrough.

As a result, Poland also has eased its opposition to the charter. The two nations had balked in December, collapsing the talks, over the issue of apportioning voting rights in a new 25-member EU.

The draft constitution provides for decisions to be valid if half the EU states that represent at least 60 percent of the union's population endorse a measure. This has not yet been agreed upon.