Deadlock over voting as France sticks by Germany

Poland and Spain came under fierce pressure to compromise last night in the dispute over how the EU takes decisions. A stalemate over the issue threatens to plunge the summit of European leaders into crisis.

A hectic round of diplomacy failed to find an early solution to the dispute, which has pitted advocates of a new system, including Germany and France, against Poland and Spain. At stake is agreement on a constitution for Europe which must be approved by leaders of the 15 current EU member states and the 10 countries due to join next year.

Tony Blair, who could emerge as a mediator, said their positions were "a long way apart" and conceded that an accord this weekend "may well not be possible". A breakdown of talks would provoke a political crisis for the EU, as well as delaying the introduction of the rest of a constitution which was drafted by a convention chaired by the former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Other issues dividing the EU include plans to cut the size of the European Commission - opposed by small states - and some moves to axe national vetoes which have been rejected by the UK.

Spain and Poland want to stick to a voting arrangement agreed at a summit in Nice three years ago. That gave them 27 votes each, as compared to 29 for Germany which has twice the population of Spain or Poland.

France and Germany back a scheme outlined in the draft constitution for "double-majority" voting under which legislation would pass with the backing of a majority of countries, representing at least 60 per cent of the EU's total population. The two countries argue that the double-majority system is vital to ensuring the smooth working of an EU of 25 and to avoid the situation where law-making is constantly blocked.

Yesterday, there was no backtracking from the French President, Jacques Chirac, who defended the new plan as a reflection of the spirit of the EU's original six nations. That was an apparent reference to the threat by France and Germany to forge ahead with integration with an inner core of nations if the constitution is blocked.

M. Chirac said the "democracy exists to take account of the size of populations", adding that the Nice system was not in line with "the idea and vision of an enlarged union".

Germany's Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, struck a more emollient tone, arguing: "We are ready to compromise but not at the cost of efficiency." However, he added: "We don't want to have Europe as a moving construction site."

For his part the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, stuck to his guns, although he is thought more likely to compromise than his Polish counterpart. "Spain keeps its position, which is well known," Mr Aznar said, adding: "We are defending interests which are as legitimate as the other ones." The Polish Prime Minister, Leszek Miller, is under domestic political pressure not to concede and finds himself in a pivotal position. He arrived in Brussels yesterday despite sustaining injuries in a helicopter crash last week.

Behind the scenes, officials are working on a host of permutations for possible compromises. One is to increase the 60 per cent population threshold to 64 or even 66 per cent - giving Spain and Poland the chance to block measures they oppose with the aid of two big nations.

Britain is still haggling over its so-called "red lines", principally over the right to maintain the national veto over foreign policy, moves to combat cross-border tax fraud and administrative co-operation between tax authorities, and the British budget rebate.

As he struggled to reconcile the competing demands Silvio Berlusconi, who holds the EU presidency, admitted that a deal may be outside his reach. He said: "It would be better to continue into the next presidency than end up with a bad constitution."