European Union draft constitution unveiled

by Jitendra Joshi
EU Business

BRUSSELS, June 13 (AFP) - A draft constitution covering 450 million inhabitants of the future European Union was unveiled Friday after a year-and-a-half of gruelling debate on how the EU should run its affairs after its biggest enlargement yet.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who chaired the historic convention, announced he had a text to present to EU leaders meeting for a summit in Greece next week.

The text will then be taken up by an inter-governmental conference (IGC) of current and future EU countries, a rolling series of meetings due to begin in October where many believe the hardest haggling will take place.

In an appeal to the EU heads of government, Giscard d'Estaing said: "The closer you stick to our text, which has been discussed and reflected upon at great length, then the lighter will be your task.

"Standing now on the threshold of a new era, we should decide together to go in to a new Europe," he concluded to a standing ovation from conventioneers as the EU anthem, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, struck up.

The champagne was then popped as the 105-member convention celebrated the end of its substantive work after first getting down to business at the end of February 2002.

The convention, whose members are drawn from EU governments, parliaments and the European Commission, is set to reconvene on July 9-11 to discuss part three of the constitution, which details the technical implementation of EU decisions and laws.

But the main body of the text is done, setting out a delicate compromise to shake up the EU's institutions so that it can cope with the entry of 10 more member states in May next year.

The constitutional debate has polarised big and small member states, which fear they and the executive European Commission will lose out from the new power-sharing arrangements.

Some big battles remain, notably over demands for the EU to extend qualified majority voting into sensitive areas such as foreign and tax policy, in the teeth of opposition from Britain which wants to retain its national veto.

But conventioneers said the right balance had been struck for now.

Denmark's Henning Christophersen, representing EU governments, said the draft text "combined ambitions, aspirations and radical new thinking with realism".

"I believe we have got it just about right," he said.

The proposed changes would see the EU from 2009 replace its rotating leadership, which now changes hands every six months, with a president elected for up to five years by the member states.

The EU would also get a "foreign minister" who, with the new president, would be the union's face to the outside world and work to bridge the kind of divisions that saw damaging splits emerge recently over Iraq.

Every member state would retain a commissioner in Brussels but the European Commission would only have 15 voting members at any one time.

EU citizens would for the first time by able to initiate legislation, by presenting a petition to the Commission bearing one million signatures. After the EU's enlargement next year, the total population will stand at 450 million.

The issue of how the EU makes its decisions will return to haunt the EU as federalists press their argument that in a bloc of 25 or more countries, the requirement for unanimity on big issues will cripple decision-making.

The role of religion will be another hot-button topic at the IGC with many, including the Vatican, demanding the constitution's preamble explicitly mentions Europe's Christian heritage.

"To talk of Europe from a cultural point of view without mentioning the legacy of its Judaeo-Christian roots is purely and simply a historical mistake," according to Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso.


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