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Last Updated: Friday, 18 June, 2004, 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK
Europe rocked by winds of change
By Andrew Marr
BBC Political Editor

Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair
The new constitution changes the balance of power in Europe

So this is the new European world.

To British eyes, a 25-member Union has attractions and drawbacks too.

The chief attraction is that with so many new members, the days of French and German domination are over.

President Chirac's voluble frustration half-way through these interminable talks was a little moment of history all by itself: he had moved decisively with the Germans and his traditional allies to settle something important - looked around - and suddenly realised he didn't have the votes.

It is hard to over-state the change that expansion has brought
It is hard to over-state the change that expansion has brought, and which this new constitution gives shape to.

Everyone knew the expansion would change things, of course: but the full reality has not hit home until this weekend in Brussels.

That post-war idea of a Europe effectively moulded in the image of France and French interests, and funded by a compliant Germany, is now as jumpingly alive as the Holy Roman Empire.

The Slovenes, the Poles, and the Portuguese all have their views and all demand to be heard.

But the other glaringly obvious shift brought about by expansion is simply how slow and cumbersome negotiations are between 25 different nations.

These talks had collapsed once before. Over the past 48 hours, they have advanced at the pace of an expiring slug.

Directionless bubble

Endless tiny hiccoughs and obscure puzzles have kept the prime ministers and officials talking, whey-faced with tiredness, long beyond the expected deadlines.

Their final deal was a triumph for the Irish presidency, and a triumph of British obstinancy, but it was above all a triumph of stamina.
Now the leaders have finished the haggling, they have to start the selling

This, of course, was a key reason for the new constitution in the first place. Fewer vetoes by single countries, and more powers for the centre are hailed by some federalist politicians, and feared by British anti-EU campaigners, as a decisive moment in the creation of a super-state.

True or not, a less dramatic explanation for these changes is simply that, without them or something like them, the wider EU would have simply collapsed into a directionless babble.

Now the leaders have finished the haggling, they have to start the selling.

This month's European elections ought to have been a rude blast in the ear for elite Euro-politicians about how bored and contemptuous many ordinary voters have become about the EU.

In some countries, notably Britain, there will have to be a referendum. In others, parliaments will ratify the treaty, or not.

Late on Friday night, an exhausted Tony Blair admitted the constitution was historic and that he had been wrong to try to avoid a referendum.

It's an argument we need to have, he said. Millions of people who loathe the EU heartily agree.

'Toilettage'

And before we get there, the legal texts have to be translated and double-checked in a myriad of languages - a process given the faintly unpleasant name of toilettage, or cleaning-up.

Individual leaders will go back to individual countries and claim individual victories. Tony Blair will say he has defended his red lines.

Politically, he has been greatly helped by being attacked so publicly by the French president - though the Tories will point out that other issues once thought important for the British such as Labour hostility to a European foreign minister, or the EU having a full charter of fundamental rights, were quietly dropped long ago.

But perhaps the language of winners and losers among the political elites - a French victory or a victory for London over Berlin, or the small countries over the medium-sized ones - is now out of date.

Maybe the split is less between national governments than between Europe's political establishment, in general, and its electorates across the continent.

This wearisome negotiation, necessary or not, will not have had them switching over from the football. Their harder job now starts.


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