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EU: Giscard d'Estaing Close To A Deal As Constitutional Convention Draws To End

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Convention on the Future of Europe this week hopes to wrap up its work on drafting the first constitution for the European Union. Against all odds, the panel's president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, appears to have succeeded in preparing a document that balances opposing interests while retaining coherence. However, this is only the first stage along a rocky path. EU leaders will review the constitution at their coming summit in Greece and may make changes. Then it goes to an intergovernmental conference, which must agree on the final version. The result is of vital interest to the 10 incoming members of the EU, who have had limited say in its preparation.

Prague, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Imagine it. A free and voluntary grouping of some 27 countries, stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. "Vom Fels zum Meer," as the old German song says -- from the mountains to the sea. Countries whose political traditions and histories are as varied as their climates and topography moving toward "ever closer" bonds.

If it sounds like too diverse a bunch ever to be drawn together into a union sharing common political, economic, and security ties, then be assured that the task of framing a constitution for that purpose is proving a nightmare.

The Convention on the Future of Europe, headed by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has been battling for many months to produce the European Union's first constitution.

In a recent speech, Giscard d'Estaing set out what he sees as the priorities of the convention -- namely, to sort out the jumble of past EU treaties and produce a lucid document that will serve the EU for the next 50 years.

"The citizens of Europe expect from us simplicity, transparency, effectiveness, and democracy, and so the task facing us is to respond to the new demands of the citizens," he said.

Giscard threatened last week to tear up key parts of the document if the fractious delegates did not come to an agreement.

Now it looks as though he has achieved at least a partial breakthrough at the last moment. If plenary meetings of the convention on 12-13 June go well, the basic draft document will be presented to EU leaders at their summit in Thessaloniki, Greece, starting on 20 June. If the draft constitution is not finished, then a range of options will be presented at the summit.

At a marathon session before the weekend, Giscard d'Estaing and the convention's presidium apparently managed to more or less agree on draft arrangements for sharing power in the expanded European Union.

At any rate, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder says he and French President Jacques Chirac support the compromise draft and are both "completely determined" to back it at Thessaloniki without changes.

That is powerful encouragement, but others are not so happy.

The deal on reforms includes the creation of a long-term president of the European Council, the top body of EU national leaders, replacing the current rotation of the presidency every six months. Also envisaged is a leaner executive arm, the European Commission, which would be cut to 15 full members in rotation. The voting system would be changed to reflect more closely the relative populations of each member state.

Throughout the convention, the smaller states have been on the defensive, fearing that the larger states want to carve up power among themselves, and that Giscard is on the side of the big guns.

Analyst Brendan Halligan, director of the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin, says, "Tension between the smaller and larger member states has been evident since the [EU's] Nice gathering [in 2000], and I suppose it is absolutely inevitable, given the fact that by enlarging to 25 or more states, we have preponderantly more small states in the Union than it started out with, so the balance in term of numbers -- I won't say in terms of power -- has been shifting in favor of the smaller states progressively."

In the draft, the office of a long-term European Council president is retained. But in deference to the fears of small countries that it will be mostly in the hands of the big members, its powers have been closely defined.

"Obviously, on the basis of 25 member states, and a presidency of only six months, each member state would only enjoy that office once every 12-and-a-half years, and there would hardly be any continuity between those who had been in the presidency previously and those about to take it over at any given time, and that would definitely lead to inefficiencies," Halligan says.

The small states have also been agitated by the slimming down of the European Commission to 15 full members, from the present 20. The draft seeks to placate them by creating a supporting panel of nonvoting alternate members who would rotate with the full members. Thus, at any given time, each country would have a commissioner or deputy commissioner in Brussels.

In addition, the proposed voting reform is still being opposed by Spain and some of the smaller countries that benefit from the present voting weights biased in their favor.

However, amid the infighting over power-sharing, incoming member Poland is thinking on an altogether higher plane. The staunchly Catholic Poles say they will insist on the draft constitution making reference to Christian values. At present, the preamble makes reference only to Europe's Greco-Roman heritage and the Enlightenment.

Poland and the other nine nations that will be joining the EU next year have been able to participate in the convention, but have not been able to vote.