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Weakened EU leaders head to Washington

USA Today

BRUSSELS, Belgium – President Bush is scheduled to meet today in Washington with European Union leaders still reeling from a collapse of budget and political negotiations Friday that plunged their alliance into crisis.

The leaders – EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President Josi Manuel Barroso and foreign policy chief Javier Solana – will discuss a range of topics including economic growth, the environment and changes at the United Nations.

The meeting also may reveal how the EU will act globally after the damage caused by the French and Dutch rejection of an EU constitution and the failure of budget talks last week.

John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Center in Brussels, warned that deep divisions have sent a bad message to the rest of the world. “This kind of internal debate sends an unclear signal globally about the clarity of the union’s position and its view of its role in world affairs,” he said.

He also said that although the Bush administration publicly endorsed the EU’s efforts to become more united and powerful, “it’s an open secret that (American) conservatives are delighted at the difficulties the union has found themselves in,” because it weakens the EU as a global counterbalance to the United States.

Through the new constitution, the EU, a political and economic alliance of 25 countries, was trying to unite further and gain a bigger part on the world stage. But at a two-day summit last week, plans to try to enact the constitution by 2006 were frozen. In addition, negotiations on the seven-year budget broke down amid bitter finger pointing.

“We could not get an agreement because of the stubbornness of Great Britain and the Netherlands,” German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Friday.

The consequences of what most EU leaders consider a crisis may become more obvious next month, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosts the G8 summit and takes over the EU presidency for the rest of the year.

The British prime minister was at the center of the dispute over the EU budget, which showed divisions and animosity between Britain and other EU powers – especially France and Germany. He refused to give up any of the $6 billion rebate Britain has received from the EU for the past 21 years unless France agreed to give up some of the $13 billion it gets in farm aid.

France, Germany and other EU members may make it difficult for Blair when he takes over the EU presidency, which rotates every six months.

Juncker, who will yield the EU presidency to Blair on July 1, said he will “not be listening” when Blair outlines his priorities to the European Parliament on Thursday.

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