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STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The European Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the European Union's first constitution on Wednesday but the treaty will only come into force if all 25 member states ratify it, several by referendums.
The EU legislature voted 500 to 137 for a resolution backing the constitutional treaty, with 40 abstentions -- part of the lengthy ratification process expected to last up to two years.
Two countries, Lithuania and Hungary, have ratified the charter by parliamentary vote so far. But its fate will be sealed in referendums in countries including France, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland and above all Britain, where approval is far from certain.
"The result of the vote leaves no room for doubt about the support that this European Parliament has expressed for the constitution," parliament President Josep Borrell said after most members hailed the result with a standing ovation.
"This result far exceeds our expectations." Almost three-quarters of lawmakers voted "yes."
The constitution, drafted by a Convention of EU and national lawmakers headed by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and agreed by EU leaders last June after long haggling over voting power, is designed to ensure the bloc can function efficiently after 10 new members joined last May.
All the mainstream parties in the 732-member parliament supported the text, which will boost the EU assembly's powers, create a long-term president of the European Council of national leaders and an EU foreign minister and streamline decision-making.
Although it largely consolidates existing treaties, enshrining the long-standing principle that EU law overrides national legislation, opponents see it as another step toward an eventual "European superstate."
Britain's opposition Conservatives, who belong to the center-right European People's Party, the largest bloc in parliament, broke ranks with their group and voted "no," while Poland's center-right Civic Platform abstained.
A dozen French Socialists close to former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius broke ranks with the Socialist group and abstained after losing an internal referendum of party members which backed the EU constitution last month. Communists and the far left rejected the constitution as a global capitalist charter without adequate social protection.
But Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who has just taken over the rotating EU presidency for six months, expressed joy at the broad parliamentary majority.
"This is an important moment in the history of parliament and it's an important moment on the road to Europe and toward the ratification of this constitution," he told the house.
A few dozen far-right and nationalist lawmakers jeered and waved banners proclaiming "Not in my name" just before the vote.
Outside parliament, rightist Euroskeptics spanning from Italy's Northern League to the ultra-Catholic League of Polish Families, waved red flags and chanted "The Internationale" in a gesture comparing the EU with a Soviet-style superstate.
The constitution still faces a bumpy ride with polls suggesting British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a particularly tough task in selling it to a deeply Euroskeptical electorate in a referendum next year.
Poland's opposition Civic Platform, likely to take power this year, said it would seek to renegotiate the treaty if one or more country failed to ratify it, re-opening a battle over the relative voting powers of large and medium-sized states.
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