BERLIN, March 24: Europe’s longest-serving leader urged the European Union to finalise an ambitious reform treaty by the end of the year as leaders from 27 member states gathered in Berlin on Saturday to celebrate the bloc’s 50th anniversary.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told German radio that under an “ideal timetable” the draft of a new treaty would be completed during Portugal’s presidency in the second half of 2007.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel starts her drive to relaunch the charter at the weekend summit which takes place half a century after the bloc’s founding Treaty of Rome.

Festivities are being staged around Europe and the once-divided German capital is hosting two days of street parties, all-night museum shows and open nightclubs.

On Sunday, Merkel will unveil the “Berlin Declaration”, a statement on the bloc’s values and achievements she hopes will generate new momentum for European unity after French and Dutch voters rejected the first EU constitution in 2005.

The two-page statement, seen by Reuters, sets a 2009 deadline for giving the bloc a “renewed common basis” – code for institutional reforms meant to give the bloc a long-term president and foreign minister, a simpler decision-making system and more say for the European and national parliaments.

However, in a reflection of deep divisions about how to move forward, the declaration makes no specific reference to the constitution and avoids mentioning future enlargement – one factor behind the French and Dutch “no” votes.

‘APOSTASY’

In a speech to European bishops on Saturday, Pope Benedict accused the EU of apostasy for refusing to mention Christianity in the Berlin Declaration.

Asking how leaders could hope to get closer to their citizens if they denied such an essential part of European identity, the head of the Roman Catholic Church said: “Does not this unique form of apostasy of itself, even before God, lead it (Europe) to doubt its very identity?”

The advent of Eurosceptical governments in Prague and Warsaw, as well as persistent public opposition in Britain, the Netherlands and France, mean Merkel’s efforts to launch new treaty negotiations will be fraught with difficulty.

“The Netherlands believes that treaty changes are needed, but we don’t need something called a constitution,” Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told reporters in Berlin.

Public support for membership has declined in many states because of fears the EU is failing to protect workers from globalisation, eroding national identities and meddling excessively in national affairs.

A poll taken for the Eurosceptical Open Europe think-tank found nearly half of citizens in the euro zone would rather go back to the old national currencies they gave up in 2002.

The German chancellor and her 26 fellow EU leaders are to begin the celebrations at a gala concert on Saturday when Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in “Folk Songs” by Italian composer Luciano Berio and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Then German President Horst Koehler will host a dinner for the leaders at his Schloss Bellevue residence.

On Sunday morning, Merkel, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering will sign the declaration at a ceremony.

“We are very happy to host this summit in Berlin, a city that symbolises what Europe has achieved over the past 50 years,” Merkel told reporters.—Reuters

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