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EU: Convention Agrees On Draft Constitution -- For Now

The Convention on the Future of Europe -- usually described as the biggest and most democratic event of its kind in the history of the continent -- has come to a successful conclusion. This morning the convention's 105 delegates approved the draft text of a new EU constitution. However, many did so grudgingly and the governments of member states who have the final say on the issue may yet rewrite much of it.

Brussels, 13 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Despite the pomp and celebratory mood surrounding the adoption of the draft of the first EU constitution, most of the convention members and observers appeared unsure whether they were witnessing the beginning or the end of a difficult process.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the chairman of the convention, presented the document this morning as an optimal compromise and suggested no improvements were needed.

"We are a convention constituted of different parts and multiple nationalities, cultures, and histories. We had to progressively search to find a consensus between the different requirements and sensibilities. This consensus is the one which is described in the document you have in front of you," Giscard d'Estaing said.

One might assume that 15 months of often arduous negotiations would lead to a stable consensus. However, most of the EU's current and future member states are dissatisfied with some of the key points of the draft text. And the governments will have the final say on the content of the constitution when they convene for an "intergovernmental conference" (IGC), which will start in October and is scheduled to finish its work sometime in May next year.

Much of what the convention has adopted will remain. Thus, the EU will have a new "chairman" -- or "president" in French -- who will preside over summit meetings. He or she will also represent the EU abroad.

Under the chairman, a complex system of rotating national or team presidencies will be instituted, one for each of the EU's spheres of activity. The only exception will be the foreign affairs council of ministers, which will meet once a month and be chaired by a "minister of foreign affairs."

This means abolishing the current system of rotating the presidency among member states every six months.

The European Commission will see its size cut to 15 voting commissioners, no more than one per country. Some member states will have to make do with having a non-voting "associate" commissioner. A principle of "equal rotation" would apply to all member states.

All of these and many other changes would take effect from 2009 onwards.

To the chagrin of Giscard d'Estaing, representatives of most member states have been quick to state that the draft will merely be a "basis for discussions" at the IGC.

Henning Christopherson, the Danish representative, who spoke for the EU's current presidency in the absence of his Greek colleague, made this very clear today.

"This convention has been an unconditional success. Not because each and every one of us can subscribe to every single article in the texts -- none of us can -- but because the texts constitute a fair compromise and a very good basis for the upcoming intergovernmental conference," Christopherson said.

By autumn, today's elation will have been long forgotten and serious bargaining on many issues will have already commenced.

Some member states, notably Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries, would not like to see the draft text "reopened," warning that this could lead to the collapse of the whole edifice.

But the remaining 19 member states, as well as candidates Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey, have important concerns which are unlikely to remain unvoiced. Many diplomats say privately that today's compromise is an exercise in saving face -- many governments believe that no serious deals are possible in a body, dominated by national and European parliamentarians.

Thus, Britain is said to be very eager to remove a clause that would allow EU summits to override national veto rights in areas, such as taxation or foreign policy. London is not alone here, as it is not alone in wanting to scupper the possibility of allowing member states to increase defense integration on a selective basis.

Spain and Poland are not keen to lose the disproportionate voting strength they were awarded by the Treaty of Nice. They have the support of many of the smaller countries, whose relative voting strength under the Nice Treaty is much higher than that mandated by the new draft constitution that proposes a voting system in which population size plays a decisive role. Thus, Germany with a population of more than 80 million has 29 votes in the council, while Estonia has less than 1.5 million people but four votes.

Most smaller- and medium-size countries will want to have another look at how council presidencies and European commissioners are rotated, probably seeking to undo some of the centralizing and streamlining aspects of the draft constitution.

Aware of the imminent danger to his magnum opus, Giscard d'Estaing is trying to secure himself a seat at the IGC to defend the convention's work. Diplomats say, however, that he is unlikely to succeed.