EU leaders agreed at a summit that changes were needed to create a permanent system to handle sovereign debt problems and endorsed tougher budget rules, including sanctions on states that do not keep deficits and debt in check.
But Berlin failed to win widespread support for demands to suspend the voting rights of member states which breach the rules. This would have required more radical treaty change and will be looked at only after the other measures are dealt with.
The leaders asked Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU Council grouping national governments, to prepare changes to the Lisbon treaty in time for agreement at a summit in December and said he should work on them with the European Commission.
"Today we took important decisions to strengthen the euro zone," Van Rompuy told a news conference after discussions described by several participants as heated and emotional.
"We recommend a robust and credible permanent crisis resolution mechanism to safeguard the financial stability of the euro zone as a whole."
The changes to the treaty are to be agreed by mid-2013 and are part of Europe's efforts to ensure it can cope with any repeat of the Greek sovereign debt crisis this year which threatened the future of the euro.
Germany, Europe's biggest economy, says a permanent system must replace the ad-hoc 440-billion euro safety net created in May for all euro zone states. It also says it should be partly funded by the private sector and entail strict conditions.
France and Germany, the 27-country EU's dominant powers, initially faced hostility to their demands to amend the treaty to create a permanent structure for handling debt crises, enhance financial stability and support the euro.
Most leaders opposed big changes to a charter that took eight years to negotiate and became law only 10 months ago. Any change to an EU treaty must be approved unanimously and ratified by all member states, either in a vote of parliament or via a referendum. The European Parliament should also agree.
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But the leaders eventually accepted, in some cases reluctantly, that small amendments were needed to protect the euro, although Britain made its backing dependent on keeping EU spending in check and Poland tied its support to a deal on pension reforms, EU diplomats said.
Any sign that the leaders were scaling back efforts to tighten budget discipline could unsettle financial markets worried by debt problems in euro zone countries such as Portugal, Ireland and Greece.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who needs strong backing for treaty change to fend off criticism at home of her handling of the euro zone crisis, told reporters that the euro and the European Union itself could be in danger.
Berlin, which wants to ensure the permanent structure has a sound legal base, had threatened to block the budget reforms if no deal was reached.