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EU: Sparks Will Fly At Rome Conference To Finalize Constitution

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union and the 10 accession countries on 4 October open a crucial conference in Rome to finalize a new draft constitution for the expanded union. The meeting shows signs of being one of the most difficult in the 50-year history of the bloc. Failure in Rome could create unforeseen consequences which could even threaten the expansion process.

Prague, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Predictions of doom for the European Union have been frequent over the years. Faced at intervals with difficult decisions between obstinate members, the EU has nevertheless always been able to find a way forward.

Its technique has been to resolve what can be resolved at the moment, and to put aside those issues which are too difficult until a later time, when the heat has gone out of them.

That technique has served the union well, although it has tended to result in policy processes which are never quite fully implemented. And it has relied on the presence of a certain collegiality of feeling, a belief that the European project is one which will endure and produce harmony despite scuffles along the way.

All that could be about to change. Analysts say the Intergovernmental Conference that opens in Rome on 4 October is likely to be an ill-tempered struggle that could generate problems for years ahead.

At stake is the finalization of the EU's first constitution. The document is meant to produce a union structure which is efficient even after the unprecedented enlargement of the union to 25 and more members.

But at least 18 mainly small and medium-sized countries, including the newcomers, have joined forces to demand a renegotiation of the draft to preserve the power of small states. Six founding members, including heavyweights France, Germany, and Italy, are ranged against them, opposing detailed renegotiation.

Germany has already threatened countries, specifically Poland, with possible cuts in EU funding if they are too stubborn. As senior Polish analyst Alexander Smolar put it: "There is especially a very deep dividing line between big and small states, and it seems to be very difficult to overcome; for the first time the small countries, 19 or 18 of them, are organizing themselves, they have met twice, in Prague and more recently [at the UN] in New York, to voice their demands, and their demands are quite serious, they are asking for a reallocation of power in the European Union."

That's not the only problem. Another key fault line running through the conference is between pro-integrationists like Germany, France, and Belgium and those who favor only a loose union between sovereign national states, like Denmark, Sweden, and Britain. These tensions could come to a head at the conference, worsened by the sour taste of disagreement over the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq.

Smolar said: "One factor which has certainly contributed to this worse atmosphere in the European Union is [the matter] of Iraq and the deep division [on this] which appeared in Europe. This is one dividing line. The second is the different objectives, the different models of the future Europe -- you have countries, like Germany which are quite 'federalist' and others like Britain but also many smaller countries and newcomers which in principle are rather against a strong EU and would like to keep as much sovereignty as possible."

Further, some countries, including skeptical Denmark, plan to hold referendums on the finished document which finally emerges in Rome. If any one referendum fails, which is quite possible, then the whole constitution has to be sent back to EU leaders, to decide what to do.

Taking these factors together, it is possible to imagine the unimaginable. Namely that circumstances could arise in which some existing members could be asked to leave the union, or that some accession countries would be blocked from joining, or decide to withdraw their candidacy.

At the least, what would likely emerge de facto is a "two-speed" Europe, with a core of integrationist countries forging ahead regardless and the others having less political involvement. As analyst Gabriel von Toggenburg of the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy, said, the architect of the present draft constitution, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, foresaw such a possibility.

"This obviously is the idea of Giscard d'Estaing when he said that those states which actually are not able to ratify the new treaty are more or less 'pushed out' of the new EU system -- that is of course in legal terms quite difficult to envisage -- but politically speaking he said that every state which now makes serious problems, cannot be part of the new EU system," von Toggenburg said.

An analyst with the Czech Institute of International Relations, Jan Hrich, said anti-EU elements would welcome such a situation. "There are some political forces in various countries, including the Czech Republic, which could welcome any paralysis of the EU negotiations over the constitutional treaty, as an opportunity to put on the table their own ideas on the shaping of the future Europe," Hrich said. "But such forces are not sufficiently strong within the EU as a whole, including the 10 acceding countries [to achieve that]."

The chances of the union shedding members or candidates may not be very large. As Hrich noted, the EU has a very strong instinct toward compromise, and its traditional "make-up-and-look-happy" approach has evolved to prevent such dire situations. But this time, the complete constitution is supposed to be written out and there is less room to fudge the difficult decisions between fiercely opposing opinions.

The actual points of difference span many subjects. Poland and Spain, for instance, want the constitution to preserve the system of weighted voting hastily devised at the 2000 Nice summit. This would give Poland and Spain, each with about 40 million citizens, voting rights almost equal to Germany, which has double the population, as well as France, Britain, and Italy, which also have big populations.

Analyst Hrich said he expects the smaller countries to win out on this issue in the end. "The balancing of power is a really sensitive question, but I think the relative over-representation of the smaller countries will be preserved in the proposed constitutional treaty, even if in a rather different way," he said.

Another key stalling point is the size of the EU's executive body, the European Commission, which is seen as a bastion of the smaller countries' interests. The smaller countries want to retain the principle that every member state should have its own commissioner. The draft proposes cutting the number of full commissioners to 15 in rotation, down from the current 20. That would mean not all states would have a commissioner at any given time.

Yet another point is the opposition of the smaller countries to the creation of a new office, that of president of the Council of Ministers, a position which they believe would be dominated by the big countries.

Italy is hoping to have the Rome conference wrapped up by the end of the year, with the draft constitution complete for ratification in the first half of next year, ready for the planned enlargement in May. Given the scale of the disagreements involved, that might be an optimistic time frame.