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EU puts constitution on hold

Associated Press

BRUSSELS, Belgium – European Union leaders Thursday extended a deadline for ratifying the EU constitution, hoping “a period of reflection” will salvage the treaty after its sound rejection in French and Dutch referendums.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking on behalf of EU leaders, said they accepted that the treaty would not be ratified by all 25 nations by November 2006, as previously planned. But he said late Thursday that with more time, voters could be persuaded to fall in line.

“There must be a period of reflection, explanation and debate,” he said. “The process of ratification continues. There will not be a renegotiation because there was never was a Plan B. But there is a Plan D for dialogue and debate.”

As part of the strategy to salvage the treaty by buying time, Denmark announced that it would indefinitely postpone its referendum on the charter. Portugal announced early today it also would put its vote on hold, as Britain already had done.

EU leaders apparently fear other countries could follow the French and Dutch “nos” if made to vote by the previous November 2006 deadline.

Juncker said countries will now be allowed to hold their votes when they judge the moment to be “opportune.” Some countries may not be able to “give us a good response before mid-2007,” he said. EU leaders will take stock of the situation again next year, he added.

EU leaders may be hoping that presidential elections in France and parliamentary elections in the Netherlands in 2007 could clear the way for revotes there.

The constitutional treaty can take effect only if all 25 nations ratify it either in a parliamentary vote or by referendum. Ten nations have done so.

The French and Dutch rejections just three days apart threw the EU into disarray and exposed a yawning gulf between the European elite and voters worried about unemployment, sluggish economic growth and competition from rising powers like China.

They are also fearful that the EU’s expansion eastward is going too far, too fast.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said the union needs “time to settle down and re-engage with people.” French President Jacques Chirac said Europe must better address fears of globalization, illegal immigration and jobs moving to other countries.

“Let’s get the politics right first, then the constitution,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to his official spokesman.

Disagreements over how to pay for and share the EU’s budget also hung over the two-day meeting of presidents, chancellors, prime ministers and foreign ministers.

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