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EU: Draft Constitution Unveiled, But Not Necessarily Hailed

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The shape of the European Union's new constitution is becoming clearer, and is provoking strong reactions among the various factions seeking more or less integration among member states. One European parliamentarian, Elmar Brok of Germany, says a "grand game" is going on behind closed doors in which the big states are arranging things to their own advantage at the expense of the smaller states. As RFE/RL reports, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who is chairing the convention drawing up the draft constitution, is accused of ignoring the 1,500 amendments tabled for the key draft articles on institutions and foreign policy.

Prague, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Valery Giscard d'Estaing is a man who bears his years well. Now aged 77, his voice is strong and he carries himself as a man accustomed to authority.

Certainly this former president of France will need his fortitude as a statesman to cope with the storm breaking out all around him.

As chairman of the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body which is drawing up a constitution for the European Union, he is likely to disappoint almost every political orientation in Europe.

Those favoring closer European integration are dismayed. Those favoring national rights are offended. And the small EU countries see a plot by the big member states to push them aside.

The dissent, perhaps, was inevitable. With each faction insisting on its own vision of Europe, Giscard's task was nearly impossible. The draft of the constitution will be formally presented to an EU summit in Greece on 20 June. But this week the bulk of the draft has been made public in Brussels, ahead of a debate in the European Parliament late in the week.

In a speech to trade unionists in Prague yesterday, Giscard set out the urgent need for a new basic document to coincide with the eastwards expansion of the EU to include 10 new nations next year:

"The accumulation of treaties -- Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice -- has led to a basic document of 1,047 pages, which cannot be read by the average citizen of Europe. It lacks the legibility and simplicity which prevailed in the founding texts, and the citizens expect from us now [a text with] simplicity, transparency, efficiency, and democracy," Giscard says.

The new document may have produced a certain degree of clarity. But London-based analyst Dan Keohane of the Center for European Reform says pro-integrationalists will see it more as a tidying-up exercise than a great leap forward.

"Certainly it's very disappointing [for them], because it is not the kind of radical changes in terms of boosting the role of the European Commission in the EU's life as much as they would have liked. The member states remain very much in control, and in particular, the bigger member states gain a lot from the way the council is being reformed," Keohane says.

Briefly, the draft would create a long-term president of the European Council, the top EU body grouping national leaders. That would replace the present rotating presidency which allows each country, big or small, a six-month term at the helm. Small countries see the new proposal as undercutting their influence.

But at the same time, the appointment of an individual as overall president answerable to the national leaders clarifies the presently rather muddled EU leadership structure. The draft would also limit to 15 full members the European Commission, the EU executive body which is the guardian of the common European interest. Proponents say the decision promotes efficiency and clarity, insofar as a group of 15 can take decisions more easily than a body of 25 or 27 or even more. But small states also see themselves cut out here, and want to retain at least one commissioner per country.

Further, a new post of foreign minister would be created. This person would sit in the commission, but be appointed by, and report mainly to national governments. In addition, the draft retains the national veto over foreign policy proposals made by the commission.

All these changes would tend to mean that more power would lie with the national governments in the council at the expense of the commission.

Analyst Keohane says the main value of the new constitution lies not in any radical leap forward but in that it will help the greatly expanded EU to work efficiently on a day-to-day basis.

"Absolutely, absolutely, that's probably the most important thing in the short term. Certainly [the] Nice [Treaty of 2000] in itself would not at all necessarily ensure that the union would be much more efficient after enlargement," Keohane says.

And, as he puts it, "a more efficient EU is a more attractive EU." Those seeking greater European integration may be ahead of their time, Keohane says, and developments in that direction cannot be ruled out in future. But for now it is just not politically possible.

Giscard himself pointed out the contradictory nature of people's expectations in his remarks yesterday.

"We must answer the new demands of the citizens. That is to say we must act more in accord with the needs of the new missions. Because the citizens feel that the European institutions sometimes interfere too much in daily life, and on the other hand, that Europe should play a more important role in the world, and in answering the threats coming from outside," Giscard says.

Another analyst, James Waltson of the American University in Rome, says that what is absent from the draft constitution is the long-sought democratization of the EU.

"What is missing out of this draft is 'power to the people,' meaning a responsibility to the parliament and elected representatives. That seems to be the big gap; whoever the [new] chief executive is, if he or she is not going to be responsible to the parliament then this document does not distribute power in a way that everybody says they wanted," Waltson says.

There is still time for changes, of course. The 105-member convention will debate the new draft text on 30-31 May, before it goes forward to EU leaders next month.