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Last Updated: Friday, 18 July, 2003, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
EU constitution battles loom
By Kirsty Hughes
Centre for European Policy Studies

The European Convention has done its work and passed on its draft text of the European Union's first constitution for the 25 governments of the enlarged EU to haggle over.

But as UK Europe Minister Denis MacShane likes to say, the game has only reached half-time.

An inter-governmental conference in the autumn will not just rubberstamp the draft constitution, despite the plea of convention chairman Giscard d'Estaing for the governments not to unpick his handiwork.

European Union flag
The constitution proposes radical changes to the way the EU works
But what will the governments really argue about? After all, much of the detail and structure of the draft constitution will indeed be accepted as it is - for example, proposals to simplify the legislative process and create two simple types of European laws, or to give a larger monitoring role to national parliaments.

And some of the governments struck crucial deals in the closing minutes of the convention. France, for instance, got to retain its veto on exempting cultural industries from trade deals. Germany kept its veto over asylum and immigration - though the UK may try to reopen that one, keen to move ahead through majority voting in that area.

Meanwhile, the holder of the EU presidency, Italy, aims to wrap the bargaining up within two months so the deal can be initialled in Rome in mid-December - a timetable many think is unlikely.

Presidential role

In fact, many big issues do remain controversial - not least the central and sensitive institutional power questions.

There will certainly be a new post of president of the European Council, the body which brings together the heads of state or government of all EU members. This is a key goal of the UK, France and Spain.

But more argument is to come over the powers that the new president will be allowed. Watch the UK argue to expand his or her role while the smaller countries try to limit the powers as narrowly as possible.

And important details have yet to be agreed as to how to run the powerful sectoral councils of ministers - trade, agriculture, economics, finance and so on.

Some sort of rotation system across countries for the chairs of these councils will remain, but it is unclear how it will be organised, and what, if any, powers the new president will have over these council chairs.

Most countries, especially the smaller ones, put great store on having a chance to be in the chair, while the more federally minded will also aim to limit any interference by the new president in these councils. So, plenty to squabble over there.

New voting system

The constitution also introduces a new much simpler way for countries to vote - a double majority of member states and population.

But Spain and Poland are very unhappy at this, as it reduces their voting power relative to the current, more complex situation. Spain has already signalled its clear intention to fight again on this one. And of course the final text is agreed at unanimity - all have a veto.

Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary
The UK has deep concerns about the prospect of a common foreign policy
Even some of the moves towards more democracy are contentious.

The constitution proposes that governments, when they meet to agree legislation, should do so in public - in a legislative council which, combined with the co-ordinating council known as the general affairs council, would be almost a second chamber.

But most governments have doubts about this, not least as their ministers want to carry on legislating in their individual sectoral councils - agriculture, economics and so on. So anticipate changes here, which could also undermine the full democratic opening up of the EU proposed by the constitution.

Defence dilemma

Heated arguments can be expected too on foreign and defence policy.

The UK has lots of concerns here, not least the new double-hatted EU foreign minister who will work for both the European Commission and the European Council. It does not want to call him or her a foreign minister, is worried at the commission gaining new back-door powers over foreign policy and is concerned at a proposal for a small amount of majority voting to be allowed.

On top of that, Britain is concerned at the idea of letting an advance group of countries go ahead on defence co-operation, and at the idea too of a core group of countries giving each other a mutual defence guarantee outside of Nato. So, common foreign and security policy will not go through on the nod.

Two-tier commission

And last but not least is the question of how to run the European Commission, the body which formulates and implements EU policy.

In a rather messy compromise between big and small countries, the constitution proposes a two-tier commission, where everyone has a member but only the inner tier vote - and then every five years countries rotate across the tiers.

Both big and small countries now seem to be reflecting on this compromise deal rather ruefully - no-one really wants to be in the outer, non-voting tier. But if the compromise is unpicked, a new deal could be difficult.

So there are many arguments yet to come, and unlike the convention, these will be fought over behind closed doors, not in public.

And of course, all the deals are interlinked - the small countries gave way on the new European Council president in order to keep their European commissioner.

Therefore, unpulling one thread could lead the whole constitutional framework to unravel. Let the second half begin!

  • Kirsty Hughes is an associate fellow of the London School of Economics and a senior fellow of the Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels.

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