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EU Examines Draft Constitution - 2003-06-20

European Union leaders have taken a first look at a draft constitution for Europe that aims to streamline the decision-making process, as the union expands from 15 to 25 members next year. Although hard bargaining over the text lies ahead, the leaders say the draft is a good basis from which to start making changes to the bloc's institutions.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, whose country is winding up its presidency of the European Union, told reporters that he and his colleagues, including those from 10 countries that will join the union next year, agree that the draft marks an important step in laying the basis for an overhaul of the way the bloc does business.

The draft was produced over 16 months by a 105-member convention, chaired by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

After Mr. Giscard d'Estaing formally presented the document to the leaders at their summit in a seaside resort on the Aegean Sea Friday, they withdrew behind closed doors to discuss it.

Some leaders have already made it clear they will seek to modify parts of the draft when EU governments begin haggling over the constitution at a conference that begins in October. But, for now, Mr. Simitis pronounced it a good starting point for negotiations.

"It is a fine piece of work," he said. "It is a compromise, on the basis of which very good future work can be done."

Diplomats at the summit say the document will not totally satisfy anybody. But there is a consensus that the changes it prescribes go a long way toward avoiding the institutional paralysis that could hamper the functioning of the European Union as it grows bigger.

Still, Britain - the most Euro-skeptic member of the union - says it will fight hard to eliminate articles calling for closer Europe-wide coordination on fiscal policy. It is also demanding that it be allowed to exercise its right to veto EU decisions on taxes and foreign policy.

French President Jacques Chirac Thursday showed how using that privilege can stymie the EU, when he forced the suspension of talks on reforming the bloc's costly farm subsidy system, by threatening to veto any majority decision unfavorable to French farmers.

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing said the draft constitution expands majority voting from 37 to 80 policy areas. But he concedes it will be a long time before EU foreign policy can be decided by anything but unanimous agreement among the member nations.

"It's a myth," he said. "You're not going to have foreign policy in the union by vote. You're going to have it by consensus."

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing says it took Europe 20 years to build a monetary union that was crowned by the introduction of a common currency 2.5 years ago. He says it will take even longer to build a common foreign policy. But he says the creation of a long-term president of the European Council to replace the rotating presidency, and an EU foreign minister, both of which are envisioned by his draft, are a big step toward that goal.