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EU Launches 'Future of Europe' Convention - 2002-02-27

The European Union launches an unprecedented Convention on the Future of Europe Thursday. The gathering will propose and debate reforms to the 15-nation bloc's creaky institutions with the aim of preparing it for enlargement to up to 13 new members. The convention will spend about a year drawing up its recommendations, but member states will have the final word on which ones are adopted.

The challenge to the 105-member convention, which will be headed by former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing, is to come up with ways to make the EU more open, democratic and effective.

For instance, the convention is charged with defining just what powers and responsibilities should be concentrated among the European institutions in Brussels and which should remain in the hands of each of the bloc's member states.

Among questions it will try to answer are should the European Parliament be given more power? How can the EU forge a common foreign policy in order to play a bigger role on the world stage? And the most challenging of all, should the EU have its own constitution?

Some members were chosen from national parliaments as well as the European Parliament. Others represent national governments, including those of candidate countries, and the EU's executive Commission.

Analyst Heather Grabbe, of the Center for European Reform, in London, says there is potential for chaos in the Convention's debate, and not just because of the size of its membership.

"They've got a huge agenda, both pre-set and new ideas that they all will be bringing to the table," she said. "And as long as they can logically divide themselves into working groups and decide how to concentrate on the key issues, as long as they can do that, they could have an impact. But there is a danger they could degenerate into a talking shop if they don't."

The convention is dominated by federalists who want more European integration and a bigger role for EU institutions at the expense of member governments. But it is the governments that will have the final say on the convention's proposals.

Ms. Grabbe says the convention needs to generate clear-cut proposals to be taken seriously.

"If they come out with an incoherent, woolly document with a lot of options and lots of conflicting recommendations, they'll simply get ignored by the member states," she said. "What they need to come up with is a short, snappy document with just a few points [that] they can all agree on, and then the member states won't be able to ignore it."

Whatever the Convention comes up with, the sole fact that it is meeting has opened up debate on the EU's future. Its sessions will be televised to the public. All previous EU institutional reforms have been thrashed out by governments meeting in private.