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Last Updated: Friday, 18 June, 2004, 21:16 GMT 22:16 UK
Constitution a hard-won compromise

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The European Union constitution - if ratified by all 25 member states and it is a very big if - will not set up a United States of Europe comparable to the United States of America.

The Americans in their constitutional convention in 1787 were single-mindedly determined to set up a new nation and did so.

Chirac, Schroeder and Blair
The constitution goes too far for some, and falls short for others
The Europeans are not single-minded. They are of many opinions.

Their constitution is a hard-won compromise between those who would like much more integration and those who want to preserve the rights of the nation state.

The result is something of a balance between those two objectives and as a result, change is incremental not revolutionary.

The European Union of the future will not seem that much different from the European Union of the present.

'Huge economic power'

It is a hybrid creature never seen on the earth before. In some areas, the members have given up their individual sovereignty in favour of majority voting and a powerful role for the European Parliament and in others they have kept them.

That is the pattern which is now set for the next generation.

The constitution will not force the nation states to adopt a common policy on issues like Iraq

The constitution does not go far enough for some and goes far too far for others.

Those who want to integrate further might press on in smaller or larger groups, like those countries which have adopted the euro as their currency.

And because it is a compromise, it means that the European Union will still struggle to make an impact on world politics. It will be able to speak with one voice only when all voices are saying the same thing and that is quite rare.

It will, though, have tremendous economic power and that actually might be its biggest weapon as other countries seek to curry favour with it and get into its huge markets. The euro might do more for European unity than any document.

What the constitution does is to intensify integration in some areas - by greater use of qualified majority voting over a greater number of issues for example - and slow it down or stopping it in others - in foreign policy, defence and taxation for example.

Balance

The constitution will not force the nation states to adopt a common policy on issues like Iraq.

There will be a president of the council (made up of the member states). This person is bound to be high profile but he or she will not have that much power.

The post is in fact designed to strengthen the hands of the nation states, as the president will speak for them. This post is supposed to provide balance against the power of the Commission, the executive body, which will in due course be slimmed down.

Jacques Chirac with Romano Prodi
The new EU will have difficulty finding a single voice
A foreign minister figure will speak for the EU worldwide, but only on those policies where everyone is agreed, so his or her power is again quite limited.

Decision making will use qualified majority voting as a rule other than in a dwindling number of areas where members retain their vetoes. The weighting of votes for each country was one of the last issues resolved. The European Parliament will have an equal say with the member states on legislation.

There is a Charter of Fundamental Rights, the likely impact of which remains uncertain. Britain fought to keep it limited to EU legislation only.

A number of democratic reforms are designed to improve public confidence. National parliaments will have a right to send proposed legislation back for review if enough of them object. If a million people sign a petition, the Commission will have to consider proposing a remedy.

Ratification battle

There is also an exit clause.

The constitution probably faces a bigger battle to get ratified than it did to get agreed.

One of its major problems is that it is so complex that it is completely inaccessible to most EU citizens. They will rely on interpretation by others and probably misinterpretation.

One of its major problems is that it [the constitution] is so complex that it is completely inaccessible to most EU citizens
It is tempting to yearn for the simplicity of the US constitution.

But that was and is doing a very different job.

The European Union is a club which you join, not a family which you cannot leave.

Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, once complained that there no was single telephone number he could call in Europe.

This constitution will not provide one number but there are perhaps fewer numbers his successor will have to call in future.


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