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EU summit tackles disputes over budget, constitution


BRUSSELS, Belgium - Leaders of a Europe in turmoil opened two days of talks here yesterday, awash in bitter disputes over money and politics that threaten the future of the continent's 25-nation alliance.

The European Union, established decades ago to bring peace and stability to a land emerging from world war, is struggling to come to terms with a new reality after a jarring revolt from voters, economic malaise, mounting bureaucratic inefficiency and public fears of overly swift expansion.

Europe "is at a crossroads," said Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the executive European Commission. Failure to recover momentum "will plunge the EU into permanent crisis and paralysis," he warned.

The summit was intended to show that the EU was unified and moving on after its hallmark constitution was torpedoed recently by voters in France and the Netherlands. Instead, negotiations on the alliance's budget for the next seven years were at a stalemate yesterday, with the region's biggest economies unable to agree on issues such as farm subsidies. And calls to shelve the constitution were growing.

"This is one of the most difficult summits we have ever had," said Luxemburg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose nation holds the EU's rotating presidency and is chairing the summit.

Many leaders appeared resigned to having to abandon some of the fundamental tenets and tools that not so long ago united them in a formidable alliance.

Casualties could include, in addition to the stillborn constitution and the endangered $120 billion-a-year budget, the EU's most important foreign policy device: expansion and the offer of membership.

"If you look at the short term, you'd be tempted to say the European Union is dead," said Federiga Bindi, director of the European Office for Rome's University Tor Vergata.

Bindi and other analysts noted, however, that the EU has weathered severe crises before and managed to survive. They predicted it will again stagger through; rather than collapse, the EU is more likely entering a period of stagnation that further undermines its ability to muster clout and influence world events.

Leaders here will be looking beyond the agenda of the two-day summit and reassessing the political identity of the bloc and its core philosophy.

Member states are divided roughly in two factions: those, such as France and Germany, that favor a strongly integrated union with social protections and careful economic planning; and others, such as Britain, that favor a more loosely connected, expanding alliance with free-market reform and less regulation.

The latter group also is more friendly to Washington.

Some analysts predicted that economic and political tensions could continue to pull at the two factions, with a gradual unraveling of the alliance.

Analysts throughout Europe say the EU will have to redefine itself to avoid being cast adrift. With a Cold War or similar threats no longer uniting the continent, the union must find a new mission that resonates with an unhappy public.

The constitution dominated yesterday's summit talks, while today will be dedicated to the budget battle.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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