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EU Budget Debate Goes On Amid Constitutional Chaos

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EU Budget Debate Goes On Amid Constitutional Chaos

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EU Budget Debate Goes On Amid Constitutional Chaos

EU Budget Debate Goes On Amid Constitutional Chaos

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European leaders continue to argue about the budget for 2007. Meanwhile, Europeans wait in vain for a resolution to confusions caused by recent French and Dutch referendums. Voters in those nations rejected the proposed EU constitution.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Leaders of the European Union met late into the night in Brussels, but they failed to reach an agreement on a long-term budget for the organization. The two-day summit meeting ended with Britain and France at loggerheads over farm subsidies. The failure to set a budget will reinforce the impression that the EU has lost direction following the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the EU's proposed constitution. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us from Brussels.

And, Sylvia, I mentioned farm subsidies. Give us a little more idea about what this budget dispute's about.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Well, the 25 EU leaders dug in their heels over how much each member should pay into the EU and how the money should be spent. Big contributors like the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden want to pay less, while Spain and Italy resisted cuts in aid to their poorer regions. And then there was the showdown between Paris and London over the generous farm subsidies, which France benefits most from, and Britain's $6 billion annual rebate, which it's gotten since 1984 because fewer Britons work on the land. So a summit that was supposed to reassure citizens that the EU was back on track will instead feed into a sense of crisis and drift.

SIEGEL: Now wasn't this summit supposed to deal with the sense of crisis and drift following the rejection of the constitution?

POGGIOLI: Well, exactly. And some analysts say that this budget dispute was a way to distract attention from the constitutional crisis. The EU leaders did acknowledge a failure of communication and that citizens were not sufficiently informed about the constitution, so they decided to postpone the deadline for final ratification at least one year. Yet they insist that the constitution is solid and still has a chance of being approved.

And they didn't tackle the French and Dutch voters' basic complaint: the democratic deficit, the EU's disconnect from its citizens. In fact, leaders heard different messages from European voters. French President Jacques Chirac said Europe must address fears of globalization, illegal immigration and jobs moving to other countries, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair stressed the need for economic reforms that stimulate growth, jobs and the creation of a knowledge economy.

SIEGEL: Well, is what was supposed to have been a patch-it-up summit then one that has in fact widened the differences among the EU members?

POGGIOLI: Yes. And, you know, at the heart of this European disarray are two long-standing opposing visions of Europe: the social welfare model that's dear to France and Germany with cradle-to-grave benefits that are increasingly hard to pay for in economies with rising unemployment and slow growth, and the model that the French disparagingly call the Anglo-Saxon model...

SIEGEL: Yes.

POGGIOLI: ...of gung ho entrepreneurial capitalism that's dear to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and several of the new East European members. Now one vision is described as the old, protectionist farmers' Europe licking its wounds, and a new outward-looking, technologically savvy Europe. And EU leaders seem unable to bridge this gap and agree on a common vision of Europe and where it's headed.

SIEGEL: The line `Britain and France at loggerheads over farm subsidies' could be one of the longest-running headlines in the world that we repeat year after year after year. How did the EU leaders deal with the question of further enlargement of the European Union?

POGGIOLI: Well, they didn't really mention it hardly at all. The leaders said that they would keep their commitments to existing candidates. But France called for a debate on expansion since misgivings over the admission of 10 new former Communist states last year was seen as one of the reasons for the no votes for the constitution. So it's not at all clear whether EU negotiations with Turkey will go ahead as scheduled in October. And other hopeful candidates that might be left out are the Balkan states of the old Yugoslavia, Ukraine and Georgia. In fact, many analysts here say that the French and Dutch no votes in the constitutional referendums have effectively put enlargement, as well as the constitution, on hold.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, speaking to us from Brussels.

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