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EU: Convention Proposals Roundly Criticized

The Convention on the Future of Europe, currently drafting a constitution for the enlarged European Union, is considering a controversial reform plan advanced by its chairman, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. The proposals have been widely criticized for favoring the EU's larger member states, as well as introducing an unacceptable degree of complexity to the EU's decision-making structures. The controversy casts a shadow over the prospects of the convention, scheduled to be wound up in June.

Brussels, 24 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A little more than two months before the end of its mandate, a convention on the EU's future faces its biggest challenge yet when it convenes today and tomorrow to discuss the bloc's institutional set-up after enlargement.

The plan unveiled before the convention's 13-member presidium yesterday by its chairman, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, shocked some politicians and observers with its mechanics and apparent disregard for the interests of smaller member states. Under Giscard d'Estaing's proposals, the EU would in future have a president, vice president, foreign minister, and separate heads for economic and internal affairs decision-making, as well as an executive commission.

What particularly annoys some participants in the EU's constitutional debate is the fact that the new plan bears little relation to the preceding debates in the convention working groups.

The usually mild-mannered European Commission yesterday was cutting in its condemnation of Giscard d'Estaing's tactics. The statement was read to reporters in Brussels by Stefaan de Rynck, a commission spokesman.

"The commission is disappointed with the way in which these proposals have been presented. The convention is an innovation as compared with an IGC [an "intergovernmental conference" of EU member states, usually in charge of treaty reform], since it contributes to a deeper and more democratic debate. Its success depends on achieving consensus. Achieving consensus calls for a spirit of compromise."

Compromise, the commission asserts, is precisely what Giscard d'Estaing has not sought. "As to substance, the commission takes the view that the proposals run counter to the orientations of the debate in the convention and its working groups. Neither does it reflect in a satisfactory way the discussions at the informal European Council [EU summit meeting on 16 April] in Athens."

Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's right-wing People's Party group in the convention, yesterday described the Giscard d'Estaing plan as "autistic." Brok said in a statement that Giscard d'Estaing's proposal "in no sense reflects the views expressed in the convention."

Brok said he assumed that the proposal would not find "general" support at the convention presidium meeting, adding that even the EU's larger member states would have problems going along with it.

The European Commission, the European Parliament, and a coalition of 18 of the EU's current and future smaller member states (out of a total of 25) reject Giscard d'Estaing's suggestion that the EU's Council of Ministers should have a fully fledged president able to directly engage foreign heads of state. The institution of a full-time EU president is meant to replace the current system under which the bloc's presidency rotates among member states at a six-month interval. Attempting to counter objections that an EU president is likely to hail from among the larger member states, Giscard d'Estaing suggests the creation of a parallel vice president position. If the EU president comes from a large member state, the vice president would come from a small member state and vice versa.

Equally controversial is Giscard d'Estaing's suggestion that the EU's day-to-day business should in future be coordinated by a seven-member "bureau" comprising the bloc's president, vice president, the EU's "foreign minister" (a separate position), two serving EU leaders rotated from time to time, and finally the rotating chairs of the two key policy making councils on the economy, and justice and home affairs.

The European Commission criticized both ideas yesterday, when it noted in its statement that they were counter-intuitive and "confusing." Again, the statement is read out by spokesman de Rynck.

"Increasing the number of presidents and vice presidents and setting up a 'Bureau' can only bring confusion. Duplication of bureaucracies goes against common sense and against indications coming from all sides. Instead, our aim should be to simplify executive powers, not to allow them to proliferate."

The commission is particularly stung by the fact that its executive powers and role as the pre-eminent focus for community interest in the EU find no recognition in the Giscard d'Estaing proposal.

Adding insult to injury, Giscard d'Estaing also proposes that the number of commissioners be reduced to 13. To allow for all of the EU's future 25 member states to be represented in the commission, Giscard d'Estaing suggests 12 of them could be represented by advisers of unspecified powers.

Should Giscard d'Estaing succeed in having his views prevail when he sums up the institutional debate on 25 April, a significant majority of the EU's member states may be forced to resort to their right of veto at the "intergovernmental conference" later this year, which will have the final say on the bloc's new constitution.