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EU: Convention On Future Speaks, But Is Anyone Listening?

The Convention on the Future of Europe is concluding a two-day meeting in Brussels today devoted, yet again, to a general discussion of the future of the European Union. The president of the convention, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, said yesterday that the convention's "listening phase" of general debate will conclude with its fifth and sixth plenary meetings in June. Meanwhile, the confusion of divergent views seems to grow rather than diminish with every meeting.

Brussels, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When its latest meeting concludes tonight in Brussels, the Convention on the Future of Europe will have conducted four full sessions of general debate on all aspects of European Union reform, ahead of its planned expansion to include nations from Central and Eastern Europe.

This puts the discussions well over the halfway line, as convention President Valery Giscard d'Estaing said yesterday that two more "listening" sessions next month will wrap up the first part of the convention's work.

Yet as each passing session sees nearly all of the delegates addressing the same basic issues over and over again, it is increasingly unclear if anyone is taking notes.

The efforts of the Presidium of the Convention to guide the debate have been limited to the provision of a small number of abstract topics, such as the EU's desired "mission," division of "competences," the need to weigh "legitimacy" against "efficiency," augmented by auxiliary concerns like "subsidiarity" (that is, at what level should decisions be taken), "solidarity" and "proportionality."

Given that each speaker has between one to five minutes to make his or her point, it is not surprising that most adopt a highly selective approach guided by their personal, national, or institutional backgrounds, concerns and preferences. As a result, it's becoming increasingly difficult to draw clear conclusions.

Indeed, even Giscard d'Estaing appeared close to conceding defeat at the start of the sixth full day of debate yesterday, when he noted the only thing no one seems to question is what the EU has achieved so far. This observation, however, was not only questioned by many of the speakers but implicitly by Giscard d'Estaing himself, when he said the main task of the convention is to overcome the EU's widely perceived lack of legitimacy.

If most of the delegates agree on one thing, it is that the EU is far too complex. This point was repeated by most speakers, among them delegates from the candidate countries.

Janusz Trzcinski, who represents the Polish government, said a new EU constitution should cut down on legislative detail: "There is a strong need for simplifying and rationalizing the regulatory environment and making it closer to our citizens. Therefore, in the new constitutional treaty, we should envisage embodying new mechanisms introduced by the European Commission in the 'white paper' on European governance. This step is to increase legitimacy and is very important for non-governmental actors."

Yet even the demand for simplicity and transparency in EU decision making can give rise to controversy.

David Heathcoat-Amory, who is one of the two representatives of the British Parliament on the convention -- and a renowned "Euroskeptic" at home -- undercuts the argument for simplicity by pointing out that what he sees as the EU's "democratic deficit" can only be cured by bringing decision making closer to citizens.

"I agree with everyone about the need for clarity and simplicity, but my main thrust relates to the fifth question on the sheet [of discussion points drawn up by the presidium of the convention to guide the discussion], which is democratic legitimacy. Simplifying the treaties is not the same as making them democratic or conferring democratic legitimacy. And even if we do manage to put the text into better language and to set out the powers more clearly, that will not itself cure the democratic deficit. In order to do that, we must take decisions nearer to the voters."

In an earlier debate in April, Heathcoat-Amory said he favors the return of all EU competencies to the nation states.

Yesterday, most other speakers occupied positions between the two extremes of a federal, centralized Europe and the return of all power to national governments. Most views were qualified by other concerns, however. Many representatives of national parliaments -- who make up two-thirds of the convention -- spoke out for the need to give parliaments a role in EU decisions. A subset of national parliamentarians seemed to put the main emphasis on protecting the interests of smaller member countries. Some wanted more powers for the European Parliament. Just yesterday, the European Commission presented its report suggesting a drastic extension of its own powers. Yet others said the existing structures are satisfactory themselves and only need minor "tweaking."

The task of drawing up the convention's final reform proposals is left to its presidium, which works under the close supervision of Convention President Giscard d'Estaing. Unless the general debate in the Convention clears up fast, the presidium and its president will have a virtual free hand to draw their own conclusions from it.