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EU: Struggle For Power Deadlocks Convention

The Convention on the Future of Europe, tasked with drawing up the EU's first constitution, is locked in a complex power struggle pitching institutions against one other, and small countries against larger ones. The convention's first full session yesterday, devoted to the distribution of power, only served to increase tensions further, RFE/RL reports.

Brussels, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Observers inclined toward benevolence, such as the EU's Home and Justice Commissioner Antonio Vitorino, said that the debates on the delimitation of powers within the EU have displayed some "agreements on basic principles."

Most others can be excused for entertaining a less charitable interpretation. For what was displayed yesterday appeared more like an uncompromising power struggle with none of the participants ready to budge. Thus, the EU's first constitution remains in limbo, with even its most basic precepts the object of radical disagreement.

Representatives of small countries -- EU member states and candidate countries alike -- bitterly accused larger countries, such as France and Britain, of relying on the convention's president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, to ride roughshod over their interests. A total of 16 countries -- the EU will have 25 members next year -- have repeatedly rejected many of Giscard's draft proposals, in particular the suggestion that the current rotating EU presidency should be replaced by a permanent executive "chairman."

Hannes Farnleintner, who represents the Austrian government at the convention and speaks for eight other -- mostly candidate -- governments, called for consultations in an emotional appeal: "We said also [that] in the group of smaller and medium-sized countries, we take the proposals of the big ones very seriously. But we would be glad if some or most of you would be prepared at least in smaller circles to take our proposal seriously so that we're able to discuss it."

Another Austrian deputy lambasted Giscard for running the convention like an "Italian marketplace," willfully ignoring persistent and overwhelming disagreement.

Delegates of many candidate countries, supported most openly by their Finnish and Irish colleagues, warned yesterday that plans to scrap the current rotating presidency and reduce the number of EU commissioners in the name of increased "efficiency" are unacceptable.

Estonian government representative Hendrik Hololei said the plans were an assault on democracy and the principle of equality of EU member states: "Last time when I looked and understood, the European Union [was] a union of values, where the values of democracy and respect of equality of [the] member states have been far more important than efficiency. I don't think that you can only talk about the efficiency of the European Commission, reducing its size and thinking that you can [consequently] solve all the problems of the world."

Representatives of France, Italy, and Britain, on the other hand, hold a diametrically opposed view and vigorously support Giscard's draft constitution.

Many of them inverted the key arguments of the smaller countries. Instead of the equality and national visibility within the EU, favored by the smaller member states, they emphasized the EU's need to acquire greater efficiency, visibility and, by implication, greater equality with the United States.

Hubert Haenel, a delegate speaking for the French Senate, said the EU's rotating presidency, which changes hands among member states every six months, should not be retained for it does not afford the EU enough "continuity" and prevents it from projecting a sufficiently forceful profile to the outside world.

Britain's governmental representative Peter Hain rejected the charges advanced by delegates from the smaller countries, contending that Giscard draft constitution already contained enough compromises: "I do say to people -- if you want an outcome to this convention, as I do, with a single text, all agreed, compromising and forming a consensus -- [then] an elected president, chairman of the [EU's] Council [of Ministers] is an indispensable part of that." Although less combative, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also left no doubt that Germany wants a more "effective" EU, even if he avoided endorsing the creation of a fully-fledged executive president for its Council of Ministers. Fischer warned that otherwise "centrifugal forces" resulting from the enlargement could damage the EU.

Some officials believe differences between the two camps are too great to overcome before the convention is scheduled to finish its work in June, so the governments of member states themselves will have to resolve the issues later this year.