Ailing Berlusconi eyes political triumph over EU constitution

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A week from the crucial summit in Brussels at which the 25 European Union partners will try to reach agreement on a new European constitution, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, president of the EU until the end of the year, faces the biggest challenge of his political career.

Agreement on the new European constitution is within reach, though it promises to be desperately difficult to achieve. But at the same time Mr Berlusconi appears to have a serious health problem.

He has been out of the public view for a month, in which a planned trip to India was cancelled. His aides say he has a recurring gastro-intestinal problem. But in Rome's political circles there is suspicion he may be suffering from something more serious.

Mr Berlusconi has set his heart on agreement on the constitution during Italy's presidency. It would help silence his critics, who scorn him as a wealthy dilettant, interested only in his business empire. It would raise his esteem domestically where an opinion poll in La Repubblica this week showed the centre-left opposition drawing ahead of Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition government for the first time since the general election 30 months ago.

Agreement would also set the stage for a constitutional conference in Rome next year, at which member states would sign a second Treaty of Rome. Yet reaching accord will put heavy demands on Mr Berlusconi's stamina; demands he may be unable to meet.

The biggest stumbling block is voting rights. Spain and Poland, backed by Britain, want retention of the system agreed at Nice in 2000, by which both countries have voting strength equal to that of Germany, although Germany's population is far bigger. The draft of the new treaty proposes this be replaced by a double voting system: in the first, each member country would have the same voting strength as all the others; in the second, votes would be proportional to each country's population.

The man Mr Berlusconi must above all persuade, Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, is already an ally. Mr Berlusconi said he had "in my pocket, some hypothetical compromise" to break the stalemate. Diplomats in Paris said he may tempt Mr Aznar with the offer of a high EU position.

¿ Mr Berlusconi has told The New York Times he favours "a change in international law" to legitimise preventive war, and that he saw the West's future role as "exporter of democracy and freedom to the world".