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Europe

Convention Adopts Draft Constitution

Though a number of contested issues must still be hammered out in July, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing says his convention has approved a blueprint of a constitution to hand over to EU leaders in Greece next Friday.

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It was smiles and champagne after the first draft of the EU's constitution. But tough work remains ahead.

Sipping champagne to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," delegates at the European Convention completed the bulk of their 16-month labor of love on Friday by approving the draft of Europe's first constitution.

EU officials are already toasting the constitution, saying it will bring greater transparency and democracy to Brussels's often Byzantine institutions.

As bickering and backroom dealing broke out between the 105 delegates from EU member states, future members and the European Parliament earlier this week, Friday's agreement seemed anything but certain. But in the end, convention president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing produced a draft the delegates could agree upon.

"This result is imperfect, but it is more than could have been hoped," Giscard d'Estaing told delegates on Friday.

"A good foundation for a modern, democratic Europe"

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called the draft a "very, very large step forward for Europe," saying the constitution would make the Union more transparent than any previous treaty. "In the future, people will know what gets decided in Brussels." He went on to describe the constitution as the most important treaty "since the foundation of the European Economic Community" in 1957.

Peter Hain, who leads Britain's House of Commons and served as a delegate at the convention, said: "The outcome is a good foundation for a modern, democratic Europe better anchored to its nation states and more accountable to its citizens."

Even critics of the draft seemed prepared to bury the hatchet on Friday. "People have debated, argued and fought enough," said Elmar Brok, a delegate from Germany who represents the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament. "You have to be able to recognize when a fight has come to an end. And this is one of those moments -- the fight is behind us and now we have to establish what it is we've agreed to," he said.

Citizens referendums

Delegates managed to push through a handful of changes in the 11th hour, but the version approved Friday largely reflects Giscard d'Estaing's most-recent draft. Among the significant modifications are the addition of a quasi referendum function.

Under the new proposal, if at least one million EU citizens petition an issue, the European Commission would be forced to take it up in Brussels. The Commission, however, would not be required to legally support or pass legislation mandating the initiative -- it would only give it consideration.

"I challenge the citizens of Europe to show the courage to get massively and considerably involved in European politics," said Sylvia-Yvonne Kaufmann, a member of the European Parliament from Germany's Party of Social Democracy. "That way we can get a step closer to what could then be described as a 'European Public.'"

As expected, the draft also calls for the creation of the office of an EU president -- who would be voted in for a two-and-a-half year term by the heads of state and leaders of EU member states by a qualified majority -- and a foreign minister.

Debate continues over how to weigh votes

It also retains the complicated deal worked out in the Treaty of Nice that would allow most decisions in the EU to be made by a double-majority vote representing the majority of EU countries representing 60 percent of the total EU population. But Giscard d'Estaing agreed to rehash the language of this controversial third part of the draft at a subsequent meeting of the convention between July 9-11. A handful of countries, led by Britain, are seeking to retain veto power on issues of taxation and foreign policy.

At next Friday's EU summit in Thessaloniki, Greece, Giscard d'Estaing is to present his draft constitution to the leaders of the EU's current member states. But a government conference -- normally responsible for refining all European treaties -- that will ultimately determine the final language of a constitution is not slated to begin until mid-October and could continue into 2004. Delegates at the conference will use Giscard d'Estaing's draft as a basis for drawing the final constitution.

In other words, though the draft will bring prestige to the Greek presidency of the EU, the real work will start after Italy becomes the rotating six-month figurehead in July. And Italy is already stepping forward to take command.

"The spirit of this convention must inspire the work of the government conference that will be lead by Italy," said Gianfranco Fini, a European Convention delegate representing the Mediterranean country. "And I hope the readiness to carry responsibility for Europe will also then grow."

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