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European Convention Rushes to Draft EU Constitution Before Expansion - 2003-05-30

A convention on the future of Europe is rushing to finish a draft EU constitution in time for the organization's expansion into Eastern Europe next year. But there are strong disagreements over how much power pan-European institutions should have compared to the individual member states.

Euroskeptics, mainly in Britain and Scandinavia, are calling the draft that emerged this week after more than a year of discussions, a blueprint for tyranny that will lead to a European superstate. But those who believe in a federal Europe say it destroys their hope of a truly integrated continent. And cynics see it as a classic example of the European Union's desire to please everybody, but inability to satisfy anybody.

The debate in the 105 member convention, chaired by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has centered on who will wield power in the European Union of the future. Nearly everyone agrees that the bloc must be able to function more effectively once it expands from its current 15 members to 25, next year.

But the convention has been unable to agree on Mr. Giscard D'Estaing's draft proposals, which are to be presented next month to EU leaders at a summit in Greece. A final text will only emerge next year, after all of the EU members, both old and new, sign on to it.

One of the issues still dividing members of the convention is whether the EU Council, which represents member state governments, should have a long-term chairman instead of the current system whereby the presidency rotates from one country to another every six months.

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, strongly backed by Britain, France, and Spain, said such a figure would give the European Union greater focus and global clout. But, as analyst Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform in London points out, smaller countries say it would allow bigger nations to dominate the bloc. "The small countries do not like that because they are afraid that this individual would talk more to the large countries than the small ones, and also because many of the small countries like the rotating presidency, which gives them a moment of glory every few years," she said. "But, obviously, once you have got 25 member states, then that becomes a rather untenable system."

The European Commission, which handles the day-to-day running of the European Union and considers itself the guardian of the overall European interest, is also opposed to the idea of a long-term chairman. It fears the emergence of a rival bureaucracy that would serve the interests of the big states like Britain and France that are less willing to cede sovereignty over such issues as economic policy and internal security.

Ms. Grabbe said the smaller countries agree with the commission's position. "So they want to maintain the status of the commission. But, at the same time, they all want to have their own commissioner," she said. "And yet, having 25 commissioners, one from each member state, could in fact weaken the Commission if it is less able to take decisions."

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing has suggested that the number of commissioners be limited to 15. That would inevitably mean that some small countries would not be represented on the Commission.

Still another issue is how far the European Union should go in limiting the veto rights of member states. The convention's 12 member presidium suggests that decisions on foreign and security policy and those on tax matters continue to be made unanimously. Analyst Giovanni Grevi, at the European Policy Center in Brussels, said those are areas that most governments insist on running themselves. "It is understandable that there is much reluctance by member state governments to release powers on fiscal policy and budgetary policy, on internal and external security," he said. "At the same time, though, I think this is progressively being overcome… Of course, it is moving too slowly according to some and too fast according to others."

But Mr. Grevi noted that the convention's ruling body is also proposing that most other decisions, even in such areas that have been left to national authorities like energy, transportation and the fight against crime and illegal immigration, now be adopted by a so-called double majority of at least half of the member states representing at least 60 percent of the EU population.

The draft, he added, also makes clear that EU law will take precedence over national laws in those areas where Brussels has powers to act. "European law has supremacy over national law. That means that, once the union adopts an act, a piece of legislation, that piece of legislation must be implemented, applied, respected in all member states. So that is actually the restatement in the constitution of a principle that has been widely accepted at the judicial level," he said.

In most EU countries, more than half of new laws are already drafted in Brussels and then simply translated into national law.

London-based analyst Heather Grabbe said the constitutional proposals presented this week by Mr. Giscard d'Estaing are only a first draft that still needs to be approved by the entire convention, let alone thrashed out by a conference of governments that will begin meeting later this year. "So I think there is still a lot of arguing to be done because, for many in the European Union, actually, the main problem with this constitutional draft is that it is not bold enough, that it's still seen as being quite timid really, and that it is not enough, basically, to make the European Union work after enlargement," she said.

So the debate will go on. A preamble to the constitution personally drafted by Mr. Giscard d'Estaing has already run into trouble among Catholics. The preamble emphasizes Europe's cultural, religious, and humanist traditions, but fails to mention God and Christianity. Its six paragraphs, which dwarf the single paragraph preambles to constitutions in such countries as the United States, France, and Germany, have also been criticized as long-winded and vague.