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Analysis: EU blueprint deadlock broken

By GARETH HARDING, Chief European Correspondent

BRUSSELS, March 19 (UPI) -- The Spanish Socialists' victory in Sunday's general election may have gone down like a lead balloon in Washington, but it has been greeted with jubilation in Brussels and many other European capitals.

The pledge by Prime Minister-designate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless power is swiftly handed over to the United Nations is in step with the views of most Europeans, and his promise to anchor Madrid's foreign policy to the European Union rather than the United States has delighted Euro-enthusiasts.

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But it is the left-leaning leader's apparent U-turn on the future EU constitution that has really got Brussels bureaucrats dancing on their desks.

In his first press conference since the left's surprise win over the ruling People's Party Monday, Zapatero said, "I believe that we will rapidly reach an agreement which will maintain a reasonable balance of power that will define the new, enlarged Europe."

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While the premier-in-waiting did not spell out in detail his position on the EU constitution, he said Spain would "work harmoniously together with France and Germany to approve the excellent draft constitution."

Last June, EU lawmakers agreed on a blueprint designed to streamline decision-making after the Brussels-based club expands to 25 members in May. But EU leaders failed to rubber-stamp the text at a bad-tempered meeting in December.

Most of the blame for the impasse was heaped on Spain and Poland, which doggedly refused to give up a voting system heavily weighted in their favor. However, sources close to Zapatero say the incoming government is ready to back down to broker a deal on the EU's first-ever constitution.

Speaking shortly before the Socialists' shock win, Miguel Moratinos -- who is tipped to become the country's new foreign minister -- said, "It is not necessary that Spain retain the Nice Treaty voting power." Under this treaty, Spain has almost as many votes as Germany, which has twice the population.

Madrid's about-turn has left Poland out on a limb. "For an individual, loneliness is a very unpleasant mental state, and for a country it would be very dangerous," Prime Minister Leszek Miller said Thursday. President Aleksander Kwasniewski added, "Before the Brussels summit (in December), there was no room for compromise. Now there's a new situation."

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The center-left government in Warsaw, which previously campaigned under the slogan "Nice or Death," now looks increasingly likely to follow Spain's example and ditch its opposition to the "double-majority" voting system favored by almost all other states. This formula would see EU laws adopted in the Council of Ministers, the bloc's most powerful decision-making body, if they had the backing of a majority of member states representing a majority of Europe's population.

In the draft constitution, the threshold for reaching such a majority is put at 60 percent of states and citizens. But a new compromise proposal would see this reduced to 55 percent in order to prevent Germany, France and Britain from having the power to block laws agreed by the other 22 members.

Josef Oleksy, Poland's deputy prime minister, told reporters in Warsaw Thursday, "I think the starting point should be an acceptance of the principle of a double majority."

The change of heart in Madrid and Warsaw has given the constitution talks, which have effectively been frozen since December, a new lease on life.

After a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Paris Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac said the two countries favored finishing negotiations on the new rulebook "as soon as possible and certainly by the end of 2004." Schroeder was even more optimistic about the timing, saying he thought a deal could be struck under the Irish presidency, which runs until the end of June.

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Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern is expected to tell EU leaders meeting in Brussels Thursday and Friday that the time is right to restart constitutional talks. "None of the gaps on any of the issues is so wide that it cannot be closed," he wrote in the Financial Times newspaper Tuesday.

Ahern, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, also issued a stark warning to European leaders to wrap up negotiations as quickly as possible. "If we cannot reach agreement soon, there must be a real danger that the project will run into the sand. If this happened, our credibility, and that of the Union, would be sorely damaged."

Last Thursday's Madrid bombings, which left more than 200 dead in Europe's bloodiest attack in decades, have added a new sense of urgency to the constitutional talks. If EU leaders agree on the blueprint drafted last year, the enlarged union would have a foreign minister and president capable of coordinating the bloc's response to such outrages. It would also have a "solidarity clause" similar to NATO's Article 5, stating that a terrorist attack against one member state would be seen as an attack on all.

In the wake of the Madrid strikes, the fight against militants has jumped to the top of next week's summit agenda, leaving precious little time to discuss complex constitutional issues. But EU leaders will be painfully aware that without a deal on the new rulebook, the club's plan to tackle terrorism will remain like a toolbox without tools.

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