The European Union's Convention on the Future of Europe began its year-long deliberations in Brussels yesterday. Delegates will look at ways of streamlining EU decision-making, making its work more transparent and simplifying the complex tangle of its basic treaties -- perhaps paving the way for an eventual EU constitution. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas looks at the issues involved.
Brussels, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There was no shortage of grand words and bold visions on 28 February in the European Parliament in Brussels, where the EU's Convention on the Future of Europe began its proceedings.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, speaking for the EU's current rotating presidency, said the Convention must help Europe define its role in the 21st century. He said an end must be put to nationalism and rifts and that the future of the Union depends on the "constitutional" reconciliation of what Aznar called Europe's cultural unity and historical diversity.
Similarly, Pat Cox, recently sworn in as the president of the European Parliament, welcomed delegates to what he called the "constitutional table." He spoke of the Convention as a "decisive and revolutionary" step for democracy in the EU.
Bringing up the rear of the EU's institutional triumvirate, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, was not to be outdone. He called for the Convention to give the Union a constitution that would mark the "birth of Europe as a political entity."
References to what both Aznar and Cox described as the "constitutionalization" of the Union tacitly evoked comparisons with precedents like the forging of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.
Yet, it has not escaped notice that the Convention is not empowered to make constitutional decisions. Last December's Laeken summit empowered the Convention to consider key challenges for the EU and to "try to identify the various possible responses."
EU leaders made it clear at Laeken that they would have the final say, concluding that "the final document [of the Convention] will provide a starting point for discussions in the Intergovernmental Conference, which will take the ultimate decisions." This reflects widespread unease in EU capitals about rapid moves toward federalism implied by talk of "constitutionalization."
However, the Laeken summit may have underestimated the dynamic contained in the very designation and composition of the Convention. At least, this is what the Convention's chairman, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing seemed to hope yesterday as he offered a very different reading of the Convention's mandate.
"The Laeken declaration leaves the Convention free to choose between submitting options or making a single recommendation. It would be contrary to the logic of our approach to choose now. However, there is no doubt that, in the eyes of the public, our recommendation would carry considerable weight and authority if we could achieve broad consensus on a single proposal which we could all present. (Applause) If we were to reach consensus on this point, we would then open the way towards the constitution for Europe. In order to avoid any disagreement over semantics, let's agree now to collate a constitutional treaty for Europe."
Giscard d'Estaing left little doubt about how seriously he takes his mission of guiding the Convention through deliberations on how to simplify the tangled mass of the EU's basic treaties and how to render its decision-making more effective and democratic.
He said the Convention stands between what he called the "frightening abyss of failure" and the "narrow gateway of success." And he rejected any notion of lack of full agreement being a satisfactory result.
Giscard d'Estaing called the Convention a "new point of departure" in Europe's history. He said the EU is "treading water," weakened by unwieldy institutional structures and sagging political will. He said Europe must change its role in the world and become a respected political entity on equal footing with other global powers.
"The contemporary world needs a strong, united and peaceful Europe. The world would feel better if it could count on Europe -- a Europe that speaks with a single voice -- to affirm the respect of its alliances, but also make heard a message of tolerance and moderation, of openness to differences and of respect of human rights."
Finally, Giscard d'Estaing said Europe urgently needs to combine a European identity with national identities, especially since the problem will shortly be compounded by enlargement.
Enlargement was a theme notable for its relative absence in yesterday's opening addresses. Although 39 of the 105 delegates in attendance hail from the EU's 13 candidate countries, enlargement was invoked by leading speakers mainly as a reason why the EU must reform.
Hardly anyone spared a thought for the year-old Nice Treaty, which at the time of its signing in December 2000 was said to be the final hurdle necessary to prepare the EU for the admission of more than 10 new countries.
Spanish Prime Minister Aznar tacitly acknowledged that more work is needed to enable the Union to expand, saying the work of the Convention will be an "accompaniment" to the Nice Treaty. He said further decision-making reforms are needed before what he called the "objective reunification" of the continent is complete.
Like the Nice summit, the Convention appears tailored to keep candidate nations at arm's length when it comes to decisions on reforms. Candidate representatives at the Convention have no ability to prevent decisions supported by a consensus among the current 15 EU member states.
To add insult to injury, no candidate representatives were elected to the agenda-setting 12-member presidium of the Convention last week.