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Drafters of Europe’s Constitution Attempt to Define the Future - 2003-02-21

Former president of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, heads the 105-member convention working on the European constitution. He says when completed, the document will represent a major crossroads in European history, much as the U.S. Constitution did in American history.

“The Philadelphia Convention in 1787 was such a determining moment in American history,” the former president said. “The 12 or 13, because as you know one abstained, 13 newly independent founding states of the United States of America were economically weak, financially almost bankrupt, internally divided with the population of about 3.5 million, including slaves, and still exposed to external threats.”

The challenges facing European countries today are quite different, but as Mr. Giscard d’Estaing notes, equally daunting. By the spring of 2004, the European Union will integrate 10 new states from central and Eastern Europe.

"It is as if the United States decided to absorb Mexico and most of the states of Central America. Something enormous," said Mr. d'Estaing.

The 25 states that will make up the European Union by next spring have a diverse history, cultures and languages. Its six largest members -- Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Poland -- will account for more than 70 percent of the European population and 85 percent of its GNP.

The remaining 19 countries will make up the rest. The European Constitution has to be acceptable to all of these nations, large or small.

“The Finns and the Poles and the Greeks and the Portuguese -- they all bring a huge baggage of separate culture and development with them. So the process of integration is bound to be slow,” said British historian Norman Davies.

Mr. Davies is the author of the acclaimed book “Europe: A History.” He says the idea of integrating Europe is as old as its history. After World War Two, unification movements were mainly economic.

Mr. Davies said it was believed that economic cooperation among European countries, especially the large ones such as Germany and France, would prevent them from ever going to war again.

“The first organization was the European Coal and Steel Community. And coal and steel were chosen because these were the raw materials of war industry,” the historian said.

The formation of the European Economic Community in 1958 with six Western European member states led to the establishment of the European Union, which by 1995 had 15 members. They promoted free trade and developed a common market, but not adequate political and administrative institutions.

“The institutions which exist at the present time: the Council of Ministers, which is the executive body, the European Parliament, which is the legislative body, and the European Commission which is, if you like, the administrative body, were all designed for the earlier European Community of six members,” Mr. Davies said. “But most people would agree that these institutions are not going to be suitable for a much bigger European Union of 20 or 25 members.”

The Balkans conflict in the 1990’s exposed the inability of the European Union to deal with problems in its own backyard. Since then, there have been concerted efforts to strengthen the union and combine foreign policy and defense operations. But Europeans are not unanimous about their future. The main question is how much power to surrender to the central government.

The Convention is bearing that in mind as it attempts to reconcile existing constitutions.

“It is not a proper constitution in the traditional way because all the countries in the E.U. have constitutions already,” said Klaus Larres, a foreign policy researcher at the Library of Congress in Washington.

He says, theoretically, the European Constitution will take precedence over national constitutions. But if the draft contradicts existing constitutions, some member countries may reject it. In order to prevent such an impasse, the union requires that all prospective members have political and economic systems compatible with those of existing members. That’s why the process of integration takes a long time.

While the sixteen draft articles published so far assure various freedoms, they do not establish a central government. Mr. Larres says the draft does not even suggest a name for the new organization, which shows how much work still lies ahead.

“The most controversial aspect probably has been the name of the new Europe,” he said. “Should it be called the United States of Europe or should it be called something else? And interestingly, in the 16 draft articles that have been published, the name has been left out. The name is indicated by three dots.” Some of the suggested names are the European Community, The European Union, United Europe and the United States of Europe.

Britain is one of the nations reluctant to relinquish too much power to a central government. It favors a single president of the union, elected by members of the European Council, which is made up of national governments. That would leave more power with individual governments. France and Germany support a stronger federal government. Klaus Larres said there is also the question of the European Parliament, which has almost no power at present.

He said, “the role of the European parliamentarians is to control the Commission, to check on the budget. But they don’t really have any legislative power. They have a control function, can criticize the Commission and in extreme cases, they can actually dismiss the entire European Commission.

Klaus Larres said a weak parliament shows what he calls a “democratic deficit.” No one knows yet if the constitution will correct that.

In a recent lecture at the Library of Congress, the leader of the European Convention Valery Giscard d’Estaing stressed that the United States needs a strong and equal partner on the other side of the Atlantic. He believes a unified Europe will provide that. But historian Norman Davies says Europe will not be able to match the United States in the foreseeable future.

“The future is not yet secured by any means,” Mr. Davies said. “The European Union is not a military power. It can’t act in the way that the United States can, although, potentially, it has larger resources, a bigger population and it may well in the 21st century develop into a partner or even a rival of the United States. But it’s a very long way from that.”

In the meantime, Brussels is gradually turning into the capital of Europe with many countries opening up their embassies and branch offices there. The European common currency Euro seems to be taking off. And new members are eager to join the union. Valery Giscard d’Estaing calls the document he is preparing an attempt of the peoples and states of Europe to define their future together. He looks for inspiration to America’s founding fathers.

He asks, “Could they have foreseen that the United States they created would come to play a major role, let alone the dominant role, in world affairs?”

If others seem doubtful, creators of the first constitution of the united Europe have great confidence in its future.