EU Leaders Struggle To Complete Treaty

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- After 15 months of negotiation, European Union leaders struggled Tuesday to complete a new treaty designed to make the bloc more meaningful to its citizens and ready it for an ambitious eastward expansion.

Following the near-euphoria of Monday's deal linking jobs and economic growth to the budgetary disciplines of a single currency zone, leaders appeared to be out of gas for the final push to win agreement on a revised Maastricht Treaty, seen as a blueprint for integration when it was struck five years ago.

Behind-the-scenes activity since an inter-governmental conference kicked off in March 1996 has already toned down much of what the bloc had hoped to achieve.

Member states' 11th-hour haggling and protecting their own national interests in a raft of contentious areas is likely to leave a new treaty even more toothless and uninspiring to an increasingly disenchanted populace.

Still ahead after the two days of talks was the most contentious subject of all -- power sharing among EU members.

Large countries, in particular France, were insisting on more clout in decision making to make up for lost power over the years. But small countries were railing against the plan.

Grand designs to appoint a senior figure to give a single face and voice to a credible common European foreign and security policy have come to little.

The 15 leaders appeared set to give a little-known Eurocrat the job of representing the Union in foreign policy and made no significant move toward taking charge of their joint defense.

Diplomats said the meager result set to emerge from the summit could reinforce the United States' pre-eminence in European security for years to come.

They said negotiations were running behind schedule and some warned the talks, designed to finalize the treaty today in order to stay on track for opening accession talks with ex-communist eastern states, could run well into late evening.

Officials said there was wide agreement on the direction a new treaty should take, but splits among the partners on sensitive issues such as defense and power-sharing.

Under revised drafts, EU countries would agree to cooperate more closely on asylum, immigration, visa policy and crime fighting, although island states Britain and Ireland would be given an opt-out, as would Denmark. The move to beef up cooperation on borders and immigration is part of the EU's plans to create an area of freedom, security and justice designed to appeal to citizens who are turning away from the bloc because of austerity programs needed to get monetary union off its planned January 1999 launch-pad.

Anticipating lengthy negotiations, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel insisted: "The European train remains on track and keeps on puffing."

There are other tricky disputes still to settle, such as defense and flexibility -- the concept of allowing the bloc's more ardent integrationists to move ahead without the others.

On defense, Britain, Denmark and the bloc's neutrals -- Sweden, Ireland, Finland and Austria -- have resisted calls for integration of the Western European Union defense arm into the bloc.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, dubbing the plan an "ill-judged transplant," fears the move could undermine NATO's position as Europe's security linchpin, but others see it as a step towards true integration.

Diplomats said one of the toughest fights would be over flexibility, where a number of countries want to retain a veto to prevent them from being left behind by eager integrationists.

The leaders earlier paused for lunch and staged a short race on new bicycles presented to them by the Mayor of Amsterdam.

While German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac declined to take up the challenge, Blair, Dutch Premier Wim Kok and Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima sped off, reinforcing the image of a two-speed Europe.