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Europe

Blueprint of European Constitution Expected Friday

There are still sticking points to be sure, but delegates and leaders at the European Convention in Brussels say they will still deliver a draft constitution in Greece next week -- even if it isn't complete.

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Working out the details: EU Convention President Valery Giscard d'Estaing is wrapping his blueprint for a constitution.

With explicit support for the current draft constitution from the leaders of France and Germany and compromises reached on many niggling details, the Convention on the Future of Europe entered into its final sessions on Wednesday.

Convention President Valery Giscard d'Estaing said he expected delegates to approve most of the draft language in time for next Friday's EU summit in Thessaloniki, Greece. However, he said he would ask the summit to allow the convention to meet again in the first weeks of July to finalize language for the third part of constitution, which covers prickly issues like taxation and foreign policy.

The constitution, which is divided into a preamble and four parts, is expected to clearly define the role of EU institutions before 10 new countries are added to the elite political union in 2004.

At a French-German summit in Berlin on Tuesday, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac both pledged their full support for the current draft.

"France and Germany are determined to support this (draft) without reservation. We have a good chance to reach success in Thessaloniki," Schröder said.

Finding consensus

After weeks of frustration and squabbling over an early draft, Giscard d'Estaing said late last week he had found a "basis for consensus."

Yet despite support from Germany and France, the European Commission on Wednesday criticized the language in Giscard d'Estaing's latest draft, saying it would centralize power with the European Council and European Parliament and create a "Commission of castrati" or "college of eunichs."

"This model would make the Commission weaker than the parliament and the member states," a spokesman for Commission President Romano Prodi said Wednesday. The Commission has argued that, as the central body representing the common interests of Europeans, it should be bestowed with greater competencies.

EU President

But last week's breakthrough deal also seemed to address a number of the Commission's concerns.

The document calls for the creation of a full-time EU president, who would replace the current six-month rotating presidency, and an EU foreign minister. But in a nod to the smaller EU states, the powers of the president would be mostly limited to preparing summit meetings. The position of European Commission president would also be strengthened, since many smaller countries prefer a stronger role for the Commission.

The draft would also create a European Commission with 15 voting commissioners and 10 non-voting ones, providing each member state with a voice on the Commission. The system would not go into effect until 2009 and would require rotations in the offices ensuring that each member country would have a voting commissioner for 10 out of 15 years. The compromise would ensure that the EU accession states would each have a commissioner during the crucial first years of membership.

A place at the table

A similar compromise aimed at pleasing smaller states would have a rotating chairmanship of ministerial councils, the committees of member state ministers who hash out regulations in economics, the environment, the interior and other policy areas.

Bowing to British pressure, Giscard d'Estaing has also produced a draft that preserves the right to national veto in the sensitive areas of taxation and foreign policy. However, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Wednesday that one country shouldn't be able to block the will of the rest of the EU and a type of "super qualified majority" voting would be needed to overrule such a blockade.

God and qualified majorities

There are a number of other disputed areas that are expected to fill the agenda this week -- including whether the constitution should make any reference to God and how complicated qualified majority voting will be weighted. Under the current draft, beginning in 2009, decisions would require double-majority voting, meaning a majority of EU member states representing 60 percent of the total population of the Union would have to vote in favor of an issue.

But in draft language presented on Wednesday, the preamble did include a new reference to religious culture in Europe. "(The EU) ...Draws inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe," the fresh preamble read.

Even if the delegates fail to find agreement on the remaining sticky issues, they still plan to submit a blueprint at next Friday's summit. After that they'll still have three more weeks to fine tune the language before handing the final draft over to the incoming Italian presidency on July 18.

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