After the collapse of talks aimed at hammering out the bloc's first-ever constitution, French President Jacques Chirac proposed on Saturday the creation of "pioneer groups" within the European Union.

"I continue to think that it is a good solution because it will give an engine, it sets the example, I think that will allow Europe to go quicker, further and to (work) better," he said.

He recalled that he had made such a call in a speech before the German parliament over three years ago. 

But some fear that following the breakdown of the talks, a core group of countries led by France and Germany will go their own way in a "two-speed" EU. 

Not in favour

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who chaired the failed
Brussels talks, said he was against any initiative by the six EU
founding members to boost cooperation. 

"I am not in favour of an initiative by the six founding
members. I don't believe it is appropriate to form groups of
countries," he said.
"It is important for all countries to work collectively and on an equal footing on the constitutional project." 

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, one of the
founding six members, along with Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, also rejected any question of a "core group" of countries. 

"A two-speed Europe would only be the result of persistent disagreements," he said.   

The Brussels summit broke down after failing to bridge differences over voting rights in an enlarged EU, notably due to the refusal of Poland and Spain to surrender generous rights secured three years ago.

No more talks

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said the EU's incoming Irish presidency will not hold any further constitutional talks until March to give member states time to reflect. 

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller
remains hopeful 

"There will not be another IGC (inter-governmental conference) called in the next couple of months," said Ahern, whose country takes over the rotating EU presidency from Italy on 1 January 2004.

"I don't think before March there will be any agreement. There is not enough political will to find an agreement," he said. 

"The assessment was that the European Council (summit) was trying to do too much, too fast and it required to think out the issues more fully," Ahern added.

He said EU leaders had asked him merely to make an assessment of the situation and report back to them at their next meeting in March.

Hope remains

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said he had battled "until the last minute" to strike an accord on a European Union constitution but still hoped a deal could be agreed in the future. 

"I don't think before March there will be any agreement. There is not enough political will to find an agreement"

Bertie Ahern, Irish Prime Minister

"Spain demonstrated a desire for positive and constructive negotiations until the last moment," he said, adding: "I hope that we will reach an agreement in the future." 

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller also remained optimistic. He said  he was hopeful for agreement on an EU constitution "in the coming weeks and months," despite the collapse of talks on the historic text in Brussels. 

"I remain optimistic about the fact that in the coming weeks and months we will find a solution that is acceptable to everyone," he said.