VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) – Lithuanian lawmakers ratified the newly signed European Union constitution Thursday, becoming the first member to approve the historic document.

Eighty-four members of the 141-seat Seimas, or parliament, voted to ratify the document, while four voted against and three abstained. Fifty lawmakers were not present. Under Lithuanian law, it takes 57 votes to approve an international treaty.

Members of the 25-nation bloc signed the constitution Oct. 29 in Rome, and the charter is supposed to take effect in 2007.

Some of the lawmakers who voted against ratification said they worried about Lithuania’s loss of independence, noting that the Baltic state of 3.5 million people was merely exchanging the Soviet bureaucracy for the EU.

“(The) Lithuanian state will cease to exist. Our constitution will become a piece of worthless paper,” said Egidijus Klumbys, a member of the National Progress Party who voted against it.

But others said the decision marked Lithuania’s return to the European fold.

“We have always been Lithuanians and will remain Lithuanians,” said Irena Siauliene, a Social Democrat. “Our main task now is to become real Europeans.”

Lithuania, like Estonia and Latvia, spent more than five decades under Soviet occupation, regaining independence in 1991. It is one of the newest EU members.

“The Lithuanian parliament has now been the first one of the EU parliaments to ratify the constitution and we congratulate them wholeheartedly for that,” EU spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said. “It is a very positive development.”

The document must be ratified by the legislatures of all EU states in 2005 and 2006. It’s a tricky prospect, given that at least nine countries – Denmark, Spain, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Britain – plan to put the constitution to a referendum.

A single “No” would stop the EU constitution in its tracks.

The EU constitution has a long charter of fundamental rights and foresees simpler voting rules to end decision gridlock in a club that grew to 25 members in May and plans to absorb half-a-dozen more in the years ahead.

It includes new powers for the European Parliament and ends national vetoes in 45 new policy areas – including judicial and police cooperation, education and economic policy, but not in foreign and defense policy, social security, taxation or cultural matters.

AP-ES-11-11-04 1226EST

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