[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
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 defence union, including a mutual defence pact. The UK, the Netherlands and some of the new member states say this encroaches on Nato's role.

    What else is in the draft constitution?

    It contains everything from grand "vision" statements on Europe's future to specific details about how member states can leave. Some of the content has already appeared in other EU treaties, but other parts are entirely new.

    These include:

  • An EU Foreign Minister - rolling into one the current two jobs of the external affairs commissioner and foreign policy representative
  • A single EU foreign policy and eventually a single defence policy
  • Fewer veto powers for member states, although the veto is set to remain in key areas including foreign policy, defence and tax
  • The EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights is set to become part II of the constitution
  • More power for the European parliament, so that it votes on nearly all EU decisions and elects the president of the commission

    What about the "f" word?

    The word "federal" does not appear in the text, in order to avoid alarming eurosceptics. Instead the document talks about building European ties "in the community way".

    The text also says the peoples of Europe are determined to be united in an ever closer fashion and to forge a common destiny.

    How will it change my life?

    20 June: Draft submitted to EU Thessaloniki summit
    Intergovernmental conference agrees final text by spring 2004
    May 2004: EU enlarges to 25

    It probably won't, at least not in an everyday sense.

    Voters won't notice much difference in the way Europe operates, although the president and foreign minister could in time have very high-profile jobs.

    The constitution could also bring some European issues closer to home, as national parliaments vote on whether to try to block specific pieces of European legislation.

    And some decisions will be taken in a more transparent way, so people will know how their governments voted on particular decisions.

    Who does not like it?

    Eurosceptics fear that too much power is being handed to Europe, and that the right of individual countries to block some decisions is being taken away.

    There are concerns in some quarters that the role of the president and foreign minister could become too powerful, conflicting with national governments.

    And some have questioned whether the new Europe will be any more democratic than the old one, which was renowned for its "democratic deficit".

    Why did Europe need a constitution?

    The EU will soon have 25 members and its structures need streamlining to prevent paralysis.

    The constitution will also replace the EU's series of key treaties passed over the last half a century - a vast collection of papers - with a single document saying what the EU can and cannot do.

    It could also give the EU a clearer sense of its purpose, one that the public can easily understand.

    The chairman of the Convention that drafted the constitution, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, wants it to be taught in schools.

    Most European countries already have their own written constitutions. The UK does not - making it a particularly contentious question for some British voters.

    Who wrote it?

    Mr Giscard D'Estaing's 108-member convention agonised over the draft for a year and a half.

    The members were drawn from EU governments, parliaments and the European Commission.

    Reporters said Mr Giscard was visibly moved as the latest draft of the convention was finally approved by the convention in June.

    When will the new constitution become law?

    If a final version is ready in time, it will be signed in May next year.

    Some countries will also hold referendums on whether to ratify it. If any country votes No, there may be a delay while a solution is found.

    One option would be to wait for the country to hold a repeat referendum, in the hope that it would vote Yes second time round.

    The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


    News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
    UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
    Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
    Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific