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EU: Efforts To Draft Constitution Running Into Snags

Efforts to draft a European Union Constitution are at a stage where difficult decisions must be made. Time is running out as the draft of the union's new constitution must be ready by June. Complicating the situation is a split among members and candidate members on Iraq.

Prague, 6 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- French statesman Valery Giscard D'Estaing is determined to forge ahead with creating a new constitution for the enlarged European Union, despite the current turmoil among member states over the issue of Iraq.

Starting on 5 March, the "Convention on the Future of Europe," which is headed by Giscard D'Estaing, goes into extra sessions to cope with its spiraling workload. The draft constitution is supposed to be ready by June, but with little more than half the planned 48 articles of the constitution drafted, some 1,000 amendments to those articles are now awaiting attention.

Some of the amendments seek removal of the controversial word "federal" from the draft to describe the activities of union authorities when they act on behalf of member states. So-called "euroskeptics," who oppose greater integration, say the word implies a union that is far too centralist.

One such opponent is a Danish member of the European Parliament, Jens-Peter Bonde. He says the draft as it stands does not clearly divide responsibilities between the union and the member states.

"The articles surrounding [the reference to federalism] do not set out a [workable] federal state," he said. "There is no clear division of powers between the states and the federal level; [instead] it's much more a unitary French-style state, where the upper level decides what is allowed, what is permitted for the participating states to do; it's far too centralist, much more centralist than the United States."

For Bonde and others the emphasis should be reversed: power should rest with the member states, not in Brussels.

Giscard D'Estaing has vigorously defended the draft, saying there is a consensus among convention participants for keeping the formula as it is.

Analyst Ben Crum, of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, says he finds the fuss over the term "federal" overblown. He sees it as distracting from the real issues facing the convention: "The big debates that are still open and which have hardly been developed so far in the convention are about [reform of EU] institutions, about having a president for the Council of Ministers, and about how the European Parliament is elected and its maximum size, and about the number of commissioners, and whether each member state will retain a commissioner."

These are the substantive matters which need to be resolved, says Crum, but he doubts if they can be finished by June.

Giscard D'Estaing has pledged to push on with the draft within that time frame despite what he sees as the damage done to the union by disagreements over the Iraq crisis.

The crisis has brought to the surface fissures among leading members over whether to support the U.S.'s harder line on Iraqi disarmament or whether to give UN arms inspectors more time to do their work.

Giscard D'Estaing has called the disagreement unprecedented in magnitude since the foundation of the union. He says reforming the structures of the EU will not be enough to heal the wounds. What is needed, he says, is the political will to cooperate, which he suggests has broken down over the question of Iraq.

Bonde has called for the convention to be extended until the end of the year so that extra consideration can be given to the foreign-policy mechanisms.

Foreign and security policy has only fallen within the competence of the union authorities in the last few years, and the Iraq crisis is widely seen as a major setback for the development of the process.

Crum is relatively optimistic. He says the impact of the Iraq crisis on policy formulation has been overdone: "In certain fields, when it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to Yugoslavia, even when it comes to North Korea, for instance, the member states of the union are able to build a front, and it is [only] with the really hard issues, which naturally by their nature are difficult to disassociate from the traditional handling by governments, that these splits occur."

The draft constitution, once ready, must be submitted for approval to the EU heads of state or government, who may decide to change any or all of its provisions. In that sense Giscard D'Estaing and his convention are laboring mightily but with uncertain result.