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Last Updated: Friday, 30 May, 2003, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Sparks fly in Europe debate

By William Horsley
BBC Europe correspondent

Brussels is now a political battleground. Many of the big guns of European politics are gathered in the chamber of the European parliament building, shooting verbal grapeshot at one another.

Victory will go to those whose ideas become reality in the first European constitution, due to be finalised by early next year and come into force within two years at most.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing
Giscard: Failure to agree a text would be unfortunate
Today the battle re-opened with renewed vigour, as the 105 members of the European Convention held their first debate since the unveiling this week of the first full draft of the proposed constitution.

Peter Hain, the British Government representative, fired a broadside at a key part of the document: its provision to turn the European Union into an organisation for "mutual defence".

Is there, Mr Hain asked, a "hidden agenda", for some states to create a rival to the Nato alliance? That would be dangerous to European unity, he said. Britain could not agree. The British speech was greeted by a round of applause in the chamber.

'Superstate' fears

But the return fire was just as fierce. An Italian delegate, former foreign minister Lamberto Dini, took the floor to attack states which, he said, were seeking to hold back European integration by refusing to allow such initiatives - called "enhanced cooperation" - among groups of like-minded EU countries.

The reason for all the sound and fury - the constitutional draft - is an ambitious bid to overhaul the way the EU works, to make it more open and efficient as it grows, next year, into a union of 25 states with 450 million citizens.

Peter Hain
Hain is wondering about a hidden agenda in defence policy
But it will also give the EU more of the features of a single state - a "superstate", critics say. Among the changes:

  • The EU will have "legal personality", with the power to sign treaties in the name of its member-states.

  • EU laws will formally override national laws

  • The European Union is given competence over "all aspects of foreign and security policy". Member-states retain the right to maintain their own foreign and defence policies, but must "support the Union's policy actively and unreservedly"

  • The EU plans to set up a "European prosecutor" to deal with organised cross-border crime

In Germany and France, the prime movers of the plan to give Europe a constitution, these things are seen as natural, if not inevitable.

The noisiest protest has come from Britain, home to the "mother of parliaments". The Sun, a mass-circulation newspaper, warned its readers of the danger of a "surrender" to Europe.

Alternative proposal

Another fierce constitutional battle pits the big European nations against some 16 smaller nations, including Austria and Finland, which fear the larger states will stage a grab for power in the EU.

EUROPEAN CONVENTION
Chaired by Valery Giscard d'Estaing
Holding year-long discussions
Aims to simplify treaties
Trying to decide balance of power between Brussels and governments

Above all, the small states oppose plans to create a new post of EU president, a figurehead who would be the public face of the union abroad, alongside a European "foreign minister".

Thirteen convention delegates showed their disgust with the whole exercise today. The "Europe of Democracies" group produced their own alternative proposal, to scrap the idea of a constitution and return power to national parliaments.

Pressure

Their spokesman, Danish MEP Jens-Peter Bonde, said the existing draft would just give power to "a bunch of former and present prime ministers". He said the people of Europe would show they did not want that.

The pressure is on for results. The convention is due to meet twice again in Brussels before 20 June. That is when the draft constitution will be delivered to EU heads of government at a summit in Greece. There the battle may begin again.

The convention chairman, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has voiced his concern. A failure to agree a text in the next two weeks, he said would be "a great misfortune for Europe".

Not everybody in the chamber in Brussels would agree about that.


SEE ALSO:
Apathy greets European landmark
28 May 03  |  Europe
Analysis: More of the same EU?
27 May 03  |  Europe
Blueprint for Europe published
26 May 03  |  Politics
Q&A: Europe's constitution
26 May 03  |  Europe
Q&A: The UK, Europe and referendums
20 May 03  |  Politics
EU prepares to battle for power
26 May 03  |  Europe


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