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EU: Constitutional Convention Dogged By Lack Of Unity

The European Union convention charged with drafting the bloc's future constitution will reconvene today for a two-day session in Brussels. It will debate some of the most controversial issues on the agenda, among them the balance of power among EU institutions and its large and small member states, as well as key security policy issues. Although the convention only has a month left to run, all of these issues remain highly contested. RFE/RL reports from Brussels.

Brussels, 15 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The mandate of the EU Convention on the Future of Europe is sometimes described as an "exercise in simplification."

This is a catchy phrase, considering that the bloc's basic treaties -- named after member-state capitals -- span the breadth of the union, its legislation runs to nearly a 100,000 pages, and the legitimacy and transparency of its central institutions are constantly open to question.

Only four weeks remain before the convention must wrap up its work, in time to present a draft constitution at the EU's 20-21 June Thessaloniki summit. Yet, the convention has only scratched the surface when it comes to discussing two of the most controversial issues on its agenda -- the institutional makeup of the EU, balance of power among the institutions, and the conduct of its foreign policy.

A draft text dealing with these questions has already prompted more than 1,500 amendments.

One divide appears particularly key: whether the EU should turn further to the so-called "community method" -- under which member states surrender certain competencies to central authorities -- or whether "intergovernmentalism" should prevail, leaving member states to make decisions with less recourse to common institutions.

The European Commission, central among the EU's common institutions, is beginning to get worried. Its chief spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said yesterday certain member states were out to curtail the commission's jurisdiction: "Certainly the system as it is proposed still contains the risk that the 'intergovernmental system,' which does not work and is not accountable -- I repeat, not accountable -- will be applied to areas which currently work well and where the commission represents the European Union based on a Council [of Ministers'] mandate." Perhaps surprisingly, the commission's chief enemy is France. Instead of supporting common, federal action, Paris favors sidelining the commission in foreign policy-related decision-making.

Germany and Britain, too, are keen to ensure that a proposed "double-hatted" EU foreign minister shuttling between the European Commission and the Council of Ministers -- where they would represent the member states -- would not be controlled by the former.

Another fundamental division exists between the large and small member states. Discussion here centers on whether the EU should scrap its present six-monthly rotation of presidencies and elect a permanent executive president. Smaller member states, together with all acceding states except Poland, reject the idea, fearing loss of influence in EU affairs.

There are other issues as well: Who should represent the EU externally at what level? Should there be a mutual EU defense clause? Should national veto rights be rolled back? Should all member states be entitled to field an EU commissioner? Should the commission's executive role be boosted? And how should the commission president be elected?

Another key question is over how final decisions will be taken. Despite its historic role, the convention does not vote on its decisions. Instead, a presently vague notion of "consensus" will determine the outcome of the various debates. Some convention officials say the body cannot vote because its delegates have not been directly elected, but are instead seconded by member states, national parliaments, and various EU bodies. A more plausible explanation may be that the EU's member states -- which will have a final say on the constitution later this year -- do not want to empower the convention needlessly.

This caution is shared by the European Commission, normally a staunch defender of efficiency, transparency, and simplicity. Stefan de Rynck, the commission's spokesman on convention affairs, was vague yesterday on decision-making preferences.

"We will know that a consensus exists when we see it. We have four weeks ahead of us which will be crucial weeks for the convention. We will have to reach a consensus, it seems that the discussion is going on on how to do that. Should the political groups play a role, should it rest on the different components of the convention? These are the different options on the table and the convention will have to reach a consensus based on its iterative discussions," de Rynck said.

Considering the present multiplicity of views, some convention members have raised the prospect that the final draft constitution could list options instead of fixed articles when it comes to the most controversial issues. However, this would mean the final status of the convention's work would inevitably suffer.