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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
Q&A: EU constitution conference
The European Union has embarked on an inter-governmental conference (IGC) to finalise the text of the first EU constitution. BBC News Online looks at the issues at stake, and how they will be resolved.

Who takes part in the conference, and what is the timetable?

The participants will be heads of state (or government) and foreign ministers of the 15 existing members of the EU, and the 10 countries due to join in May 2004.

There will be eight meetings between October and December 2003.

The conference must finish, at the latest, by spring 2004. Italy, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, wants to wind it up by the end of 2003, hoping that the new constitution will become the second Rome Treaty.

This is the sixth EU intergovernmental conference. Some of the earlier ones lasted more than a year.

Where do the main disagreements lie?

The main faultlines lie between smaller and larger countries, and between those that or more or less keen on a federal Europe. Broadly speaking, the smaller countries want to boost the powers of the European Commission and the European Parliament (both supranational bodies), while the larger countries favour inter-governmental co-operation through the Council of Ministers.

A common thread among smaller countries is the fear of being dwarfed by the bigger countries.

Arguments could also rage on questions of procedure. The Italian authorities would like to keep changes to the draft to a minimum. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has said no country may submit an amendment unless it has garnered wide support.

What specific arguments are likely?

Here are a few examples:

  • Members of the European Commission. The draft constitution proposes a commission of 15 voting and 10 non-voting members. Many current and future member states want all 25 commissioners to have a vote, on the principle of "one country one vote".
  • Voting in the Council of Ministers (which groups together government ministers from member states). The draft says votes should be carried if a majority of states support a motion, and if they represent more than 60% of the EU's population. Spain and Poland want to stick to a system of weighted votes agreed in the 2000 Nice Treaty.
  • Religion. The preamble to the draft constitution makes no reference to Christianity, or any other religion. Poland believes it should, and has support from Spain and Italy. Staunchly secular France, and some countries which back Turkish EU membership, oppose the idea.
  • Presidency. The draft proposes a permanent president for the Council of Ministers, to replace the current system whereby each member state in turn holds the presidency for six months. A number of countries, mainly the smaller ones, say the new proposal favours the bigger countries, and want rotation to continue.
  • Defence. The draft constitution appears to give a green light to Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg to go ahead with plans for a European de