Auteur: | By Honor Mahony
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU leaders have agreed a Constitution for Europe after almost two and half years of intense negotiation and wheeler-dealing.
Emerging from the two-day summit on Friday, a relieved Bertie Ahern, Irish prime minister and current head of the EU, announced that a deal had been agreed.
"It's a great achievement for Europe", said Mr Ahern who added that while he did not know how long the Constitution would last, "you'll get a few generations out of it".
Outgoing president of the European Parliament Pat Cox said it was a "very significant and positive step forward for the European Union".
However, the final few hours of negotiation leading to the historic deal were characterised by bad temper as the 25 member states of the European Union wrangled over the balance of power in a future Europe.
The new voting system, how much power the European Commission should have over member states' economic policies and whether a mention of Christianity should be included in the text were on the table until the last minute.
The new document, which contains over 400 articles, introduces some big innovations.
After it comes into force, the EU will get a permanent chair of the European Council to drive the EU forward, and a new EU foreign minister.
The new voting system, which caused so much of the acrimonious discussion, will be based on a double majority of both member states and population.
Other big changes include an article to reduce the number of Commissioners to two thirds of the number of member states from 2014.
The European Parliament's powers have been strengthened so the areas where it can co-legislate with member states has almost doubled.
For first time, there is an exit clause so that a member state can leave the Union if it wants and a solidarity clause committing member states to help when another in the bloc is under attack.
The long path to agreement
The road to today's deal has been long. The body that drew up the draft Constitution started its work in February 2002. It finished around 16 months later. Since then, EU governments have been fine-tuning the text - a process that led to a collapse of talks last December.
Talk of a two-speed Europe, with France and Germany leading the way, followed almost immediately.
But with a change of government in Spain - one of the countries most opposed to a new voting system based more on the size of population - the way slowly started to be opened to compromise.
The terror attacks in Madrid in March, which was followed shortly after by the traditional spring summit, further galvanised EU leaders leading them to propose June as a deadline for reaching a deal.
The low-key consensus-forging approach used by Dublin - in marked contrast to the flamboyant and relatively unpredictable Italian President - helped towards the overall mood to achieve a consensus.
But even as the ink dries on this deal, diplomats are looking towards the next big hurdle - ratification.
Before coming into force, the document has to be ratified by all 25 member states - several of which have already committed themselves to having a referendum.
Following the low turnout in the European elections and the swing towards euroscepticism in some member states, it is clear just how difficult a yes vote for the Constitution will be.
Mr Ahern urged colleagues to "engage in active campaigns" to inform people about the Constitution.
Taking over the EU Presidency in July, the Netherlands will oversee the tidying up of the text and translation which is expected to take three months - after which there will be a formal signing ceremony.
Some weeks after that, ratification in the member states can begin.