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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
EU muddles towards constitution

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Is the proposed new European constitution just a "tidying up" job in the words of the British minister responsible, Peter Hain, or "the end of our independence" as the London Daily Mail described it?

You need only look at the arguments about the opening paragraph to realize that there is no clear answer.

It is probably more than one and less than the other.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Peter Hain
Giscard has suggested United Europe as a new name for the EU
And this is because there is no agreement on how far the European Union should be further integrated.

There is still even an argument about the name.

The draft constitution, another version of which is to be published at the end of the month, leaves the name blank.

One suggestion is "United States of Europe". That is a non-starter.

The former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who is heading the constitutional convention drawing up the new document, has suggested "United Europe."

Divisions reflected

France and Britain refer to the European Union in their proposals, so inertia will probably prevail and it will stay the same.

You can see right away that everyone wants to win the battle in the first paragraph
Arguments over the language of the new constitution (some even object to this "c" word on the grounds that it implies the formation of a state) reflect the divisions within Europe.

Take Article 1, as it currently reads:

"Reflecting the will of the people and the States of Europe to build a common future, this Constitution establishes a Union [entitled...], within which the policies of the member states shall be coordinated and which shall administer certain competences on a federal basis."

Hardly an inspiring call to unity. Compare it to the rhetorical flourish with which the framers of the American constitution began their document in 1787.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, ensure Domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America."

Blizzard of amendments

Of course, the two constitutions do different things. One was working from a blank sheet of paper to set up a new country, while the other is trying to bring existing countries closer together, in ways that are contested.

Dominique de Villepin
De Villepin has come up with his own version of the first paragraph
Simplicity has served the Americans well. Complexity is the European way, but you might think the Europeans would come up with something more interesting in their very first paragraph.

And even this attempt has been met with a blizzard of amendments from those who want it stronger and those who want it weaker.

The French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, an author himself, has proposed his own version:

"Inspired by the will of the peoples and the States of Europe to create between them a closer and unending union, the Constitution establishes a federation of nation States called the European Union, at the heart of which the policies of the member States are coordinated and which manage, in a federal way, certain common competences."

The Europeans do not know what they are about and get bogged down in a dismal linguistic swamp right from the start
This combines the notion of nation states (he mentions them three times) and a strong union, the French concept of Europe.

The British Government has proposed its own version, removing the dread word "federal" and replacing the whole first article with language which stresses the nation state not the Union:

"Reflecting the will of the people and States of Europe to build a common future, the High Contracting Parties establish a European Union [by/under] this Constitution within which the Member States shall co-ordinate certain policies at a European level to achieve goals that they cannot achieve on their own.

"To this end the Member States shall confer certain of the competences on the Union, which shall administer those competences in common."

Signpost

You can see right away that everyone wants to win the battle in the first paragraph.

But while the Americans, for all their differences, knew what they were about and issued a confident rallying call, the Europeans do not know what they are about and get bogged down in a dismal linguistic swamp right from the start.

The argument about the first article is a signpost to what follows. The constitution seeks to resolve the old question about how far member states should go it alone and how far they should act together and if so, in what ways can their decisions be taken.

The proposed structure will still basically look much the same as it does now. The European Commission will propose, (at least where the single market is concerned) and the Council of Ministers (that is, the member states) will decide, with help from the European Parliament.

But within that, there are ideas about how to modernise, simplify and extend the process.

The constitutional framers are proposing that there be a permanent president of the Council of Ministers instead of rotating the job among the member states every six months. Naturally the big states like this but the small ones do not. There would be a European "foreign minister" figure, though what he or she would be called is not settled.

Common action by agreement

It is proposed that qualified majority be more widely used and be defined as a majority of states representing three-fifths of the total population instead of the complicated weighted voting used now.

There would be greater clarity as to the limits of the powers of the union, subsidiarity and all that, with a watchdog role for national parliaments.

The way would be open for common action on foreign policy and eventually defence, but only by agreement. Some home affairs issues would be brought within union structures instead of being dealt with government to government.

By raising the prospect of new policy areas being covered, the new constitution raises fears among the opponents of more integration which leads to such comments as those in the Daily Mail.

But by limiting the way such policies can be introduced, the framers enable people like Peter Hain to claim that this is a minimalist approach to further integration.

One just wishes that they could use more memorable language.


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