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Convention Approves Final Draft of EU Constitution - 2003-06-13

The European Union is one step closer to having its own constitution. The convention that has been drawing up the document has finalized a draft text that will be presented to European leaders next week at a summit in Greece.

The 105-member convention united behind the draft that proposes a major, if incomplete, overhaul of the way the European Union does business.

The convention's task was to spell out how the bloc of 15 nations, soon to grow to 25, will be run in the decades ahead. The intention is to make the EU more effective.

Thus, the draft text proposes a full-time president of the European Council, the body that brings together national leaders, instead of the current system whereby the presidency rotates every six months among member nations. It also provides for an EU foreign minister.

The document stipulates that more decision making should be undertaken by majority voting instead of consensus, a touchy issue with some countries.

And it suggests that the European Commission, the body that handles day-to-day EU business, be slimmed down to 15 members from the current 20 while ensuring that those jobs rotate between member states.

The draft that emerged after 16 months of hard-bargaining can be considered a personal triumph for the convention's chairman, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He managed to steer representatives of current and future member governments, national parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Commission to a consensus on issues that have eluded a solution for nearly half a century.

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing Friday told the convention that it had made history.

He said he will go to Thessaloniki, Greece next week to present the text to European leaders as the basis for a future constitutional treaty for Europe.

European federalists have accused Mr. Giscard d'Estaing of being a pawn of big countries like Britain and France that are reluctant to give up any more sovereignty to the Union. And euroskeptics have accused him of wanting to centralize more power within the European institutions.

But Mr. Giscard d'Estaing acknowledges that, while imperfect, the draft constitution combines realism with idealism, and he is urging member governments not to stray too far from the consensus reached by the convention.

He says the closer they stick to the text, which has been discussed and reflected upon at great length, then the easier their task will be.

The Thessaloniki summit will not have the final word on the draft constitution. That will be left up to a conference of governments that gets under way in October. The convention itself still has to fine tune a section of the draft that deals with the way EU laws and policies are implemented. And that is where the difficulties arise.

Some countries say they will fight to keep complex voting rules that give small nations power disproportionate to their population. But those rules may change. As the draft now stands, it calls for all EU decisions to be approved by half of the bloc's member states representing 60 percent of the EU's people.

Some countries also want to extend majority voting to foreign policy and taxation issues, a move fiercely resisted by Britain.

But despite those looming fights, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing noted that Friday was a day of celebration.

Now that we are on the threshold of a new era, he said, we should decide together to go into a new Europe.

And as he finished to a standing ovation, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing and the other delegates rose for Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, and toasted their historic achievement with champagne.