– Knight Ridder Newspapers

ROME – No effort was spared Friday to ensure that Europe’s first-ever constitution received a momentous launch on its path to an uncertain future.

The setting was a frescoed 15th-century palace designed by Michelangelo and built on the site of the ancient Roman senate. Renowned Italian movie director Franco Zeffirelli choreographed the live TV coverage. The soundtrack was courtesy of Beethoven, whose “Ode to Joy” has been chosen as the European Union’s new anthem.

Against this sumptuous backdrop, the 25 leaders of the newly expanded European Union put their signatures to a document that will guarantee human rights, freedoms and common “values” across a continent whose people have spent much of their history fighting over such things.

But the grand surroundings, the smiles and the handshakes failed to mask the deep divisions that could yet scuttle this grand project to turn the dream of a united Europe into a reality.

Parliaments of member states have until October 2006 to ratify the document before it takes effect, and the assent of all 25 nations is far from certain. At least 10 countries plan popular referendums on the constitution, and opinion polls suggest at least two of those, Britain and Denmark, will vote no.

Should any one nation reject the document, it would fail to take effect. And if any of the big powers, such as France or Britain, fail to ratify the constitution, the future of the entire experiment in European unity would be in jeopardy.

“Ratification … is not a foregone conclusion,” the new European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, warned the assembled leaders. “It needs more work, more transparency, more democracy.”

That the ceremony coincided with one of the gravest institutional crises yet to afflict Europe’s attempt at union won’t help the constitution’s chances. Even as they converged on Rome, Europe’s leaders exchanged barbs over their latest squabble: the disputed nomination of a European commissioner who said he believed homosexuality is a sin.

After the European Parliament threatened to veto the candidacy of Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione because of his comments, the scheduled appointment of a new European commission has been put on hold, plunging the union’s fledgling institutions into chaos.

The crisis underscores the challenges that lie ahead for Europe’s modern-day founding fathers as they set out to convince their citizens that the constitution is worthwhile. The furor over Buttiglione’s condemnation of homosexuality, as well as single mothers, highlights the difficulty of applying the constitution’s emphasis on shared “values” across such a politically and socially diverse continent.

Muslim Turkey is waiting to join, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also signed the document after the ceremony, along with the leaders of aspiring members Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania.

Yet even as new recruits from Eastern Europe and beyond line up eagerly to join the club, the citizens of its older members are displaying signs of weariness with a project increasingly associated in many European minds with a remote and unfathomable bureaucracy. Britain’s skepticism is well documented, but recent polls show growing uncertainty, even in traditionally Europhile countries such as France and the Netherlands.

“Instead of jubilation about European integration, there is a mood of depression over the European crisis,” commented Austria’s Der Standard newspaper. “Chaos and political crisis are the real atmosphere in which the constitution is being signed.”

The constitution is the fruit of more than two years of hard and often bitter negotiations. If ratified, it could add muscle to the hopes of some of its architects that a newly united Europe will emerge as a powerful counterpart to the United States.

Although there are parallels between Friday’s signing ceremonies and those held in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago, the European constitution does not seek to create a new nation, or a United States of Europe. Rather, it lays down principles and rules that members are expected to abide by, much as a club would do. Many of its 325 pages focus on bureaucratic details concerning fishing rights and environmental obligations.

It also includes an opt-out clause that will allow any nation to quit at any time, something states are not permitted in the American Constitution.

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-29-04 2216EDT

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