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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 December, 2003, 11:01 GMT
UK regret over EU summit failure
European Union flags
No agreement was reached on the EU constitution
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said he is sorry that EU leaders failed to hammer out a deal over the proposed European Constitution.

But - speaking after talks in Brussels collapsed without agreement - Mr Straw insisted that "life would go on despite this difficulty".

Negotiations broke down over how voting will work when the EU expands from 15 to 25 members in May.

There are fears the failure may deepen splits over the speed of integration.

Poland and Spain insisted on keeping voting rights already secured, while France and Germany want a new system to reflect their bigger populations.

Mr Straw told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme: "What we need and what we now have is a period to reflect."

Red lines

He added that the stumbling block at the summit over voting rates was not an issue that had troubled the UK and he insisted that all the government's "red lines" over issues like defence and taxation had been agreed to.

"The UK was able to achieve virtually everything that it came for in any event," he said.

"Part of the anxiety that people had when they were making the argument for a referendum was what would happen if we were to sign up to a draft constitution that crossed our red lines.

"We were never going to do that. We haven't done it.

"What I hope now is that people who have been tempted by the idea of a referendum will sit down and think why would you have one?"

The EU's plan to complete its constitution by next May now looks very hard to achieve and Mr Straw indicated any new deal was unlikely in the immediate future.

But the foreign secretary said that in the meantime the UK could live with the Nice agreement under which there were already voting arrangements that were intended to last until 2009.

To look at this in apocalyptic terms is rather misguided - I think, ultimately, it will be resolved
Tony Blair
UK prime minister

And there are fears that continuing disagreements about the constitution could lead to a two-speed Europe, with a core group - including France and Germany - pushing ahead with integration.

But several leaders were playing down the scale of the divisions.

Finding time

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said it had been better to abandon the talks, rather than holding deliberations throughout the night and coming up with a poor agreement.

"It is better to give it some time, for countries to have some time to find an accord," he told reporters.

"There is no drama or crisis with a capital C," said French President Jacques Chirac.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who chaired the summit in his role as head of the rotating EU presidency, said there was "total disagreement" on voting powers.

CONTENTIOUS ISSUES
Voting powers
Number of commissioners
Christian heritage
National vetoes on foreign, defence and taxation policy
Extent of European Parliament's influence on EU budget

But he said European leaders had managed to agree on the vast majority of points in the draft constitution, including an agreement on closer integration of defence.

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said talks on the constitution were unlikely to resume until 2005.

The problem now falls to Ireland, which takes over the EU presidency in January. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he would give a progress report at the next summit in March.

'Two-speed Europe'

The failure to reach an agreement could deepen a split within Europe about the speed of integration.

A summit agreement in Nice three years ago gave Spain and Poland - one of the new members - almost as many votes each as Germany, despite them having smaller populations.

Warsaw and Madrid are determined to hold on to those voting powers.

All 25 leaders must approve the proposed constitution. However, an agreement is not needed in order for the enlargement to go ahead.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"Europe's leaders have returned home empty handed"



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