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EU: Smaller States Meet In Prague Amid Fears Over Constitution

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Czech Foreign Ministry is to host a meeting in Prague next week (1 September) of 17 smaller European Union members and candidate states to discuss a common approach as the EU moves forward on adopting a constitution. Smaller countries are worried that the draft, as it stands, gives too much power to big members like France and Germany.

Prague, 29 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Seventeen mostly smaller EU member states and candidate members are meeting in Prague on 1 September to discuss problems they have with the upcoming EU constitution.

EU members have been wrangling for 16 months now over provisions of the draft constitution, the EU's first. The constitution is expected to overhaul the EU's unwieldy structures ahead of the planned eastward enlargement beginning in May.

But the "Prague 17" members are worried that the new constitution delivers too much power into the hands of a few big members, such as Germany, France, and Britain. The meeting is being held to work out a common approach to counter this perceived bias.

The draft constitution was put together by a committee under former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and broadly reflects his view that further close integration in Europe is inevitable if the continent is to play a significant part on the world stage. As senior analyst Alexander Smolar of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw put it, "The objective of the changes, which were more or less imposed [at the convention] by the big countries and by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, is to reinforce the importance of the big states, which is practically the condition of enforcing political integration of the union."

Smolar said the draft constitution changes the previous situation in the union, particularly after the Nice Summit of 2000, under which the smaller states had comparatively more power than their larger fellows. He said, "This is not a question of good or bad will, the problem is one of a certain vision of the future of the union, and also that in the old union there was over-representation of the small states, which practically had the possibility to block the evolution and the decision process of the European Union."

Smolar said there are clear differences between the interests of big and small members, and it is not surprising that the small states are trying to organize themselves to react to the new situation. He said what is interesting is that there is already a common front between the eastern newcomers to the EU and old EU members. He said this shows the complexity that will characterize the enlarged European Union, with widely differing coalitions emerging on different issues.

Giscard d'Estaing presented his completed draft constitution to the EU leaders at their June summit in Thessaloniki, but the document must be formally approved by a special intergovernmental conference opening at the Villa Borghese in Rome in October.

France and Germany have already said they regard the draft as largely finalized, and have warned against trying to reopen fundamental issues in Rome. German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer said in Prague on 26 August, "The result is outstanding and represents a really successful compromise, and by that I mean that everybody can live with it, even if no one is completely satisfied with it."

One of the fears of the smaller states is that the European Commission, a traditional center of smaller states' rights, is weakened in the draft. Fischer denied that, saying the commission's powers are actually strengthened even though it will not have a representative from every country on board at any one time.

"A smaller yet more powerful commission is exactly in the interests also of the smaller members, but I realize that in the Czech Republic as in most of the accession countries, understandably enough, this is considered a problem, [as it is] among some of the EU's current smaller members," Fischer said. But he added, "I know from experience that the big countries can cope with a weaker commission, but that the smaller states are much more dependent on a strong commission to defend their interests."

Apart from the question of small states versus big states, there is a basic divergence of views in the EU on where exactly the union is going. Arguments on this topic are also likely to emerge at the Villa Borghese.

Some members like Germany and Belgium are pressing the idea that there should be steady integration among members, leading to something like a United States of Europe. That policy is anathema to Britain, Sweden, and others, which see the union more as a free-trade area than a political entity.

In Rome, senior analyst James Waltson of the American University told RFE/RL it may be too late to stop continuing integration. "We are moving toward some sort of political union," he said. Immediate integration "is not going to happen at the Villa Borghese. It's probably not going to happen in the next decade even, and the process is terribly slow, inevitably, in any sort of peaceful compromise political situation, but of course it is [going to happen]; it has already happened in some ways."

The final intergovernmental conference to approve the draft constitution is scheduled to wrap up its work by March 2004. Current EU president Italy is hoping to have it finished earlier than that, by December this year. However, the coming meeting in Prague -- if it defines the battle lines more clearly -- could complicate that schedule.

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