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Europe

Delegates See David vs. Goliath Struggle at EU Convention

The latest draft constitution for the European Union has created a furor, as some delegates to the Convention on the Future of Europe fear it will consolidate power with the EU’s six biggest nations.

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Convention chairman Valery Giscard d'Estaing has been accused of favoring the EU's larger nations.

The steering presidium of the Convention on the Future of Europe has released a new working version of a constitution. It is aimed at streamlining the EU’s institutions to make it capable of functioning when the bloc expands from 15 to 25 members next year.

The 105-member convention, led by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, is expected to debate the draft on Friday and Saturday. But shortly after the latest text was made public earlier this week, some convention delegates sharply criticized what they saw as a power grab by Europe’s six largest countries: Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Poland.

"This is not acceptable to small member states," Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament representing the Christian Democrats, told the Reuters news agency. "Do we want a directorate in Europe where the big six states decide everything? If so, it will be the end of the European Union."

Permanent presidency

At the heart of the controversy are proposals to create a permanent president or chairman of the European Council. This is where EU national leaders meet to set policy. Currently, the EU presidency is rotated every six months, with each member country government representing the bloc. The larger countries are complaining that this reduces the effectiveness and dilutes the focus of the presidency.

The new text also suggests limiting the size of the European Commission, the body which proposes laws and enforces common EU policies, to 15 executive members. Presently, each country is guaranteed one commissioner and larger nations have two. The smaller nations, including nine candidate countries, want to see each member guaranteed a commissioner to protect their national interests in Brussels.

In what is seen as another concession to the larger countries, Giscard d’Estaing has agreed to preserve a national veto over important foreign policy issues. Both Britain and France had been particularly reluctant to hamper their room for manoeuvre abroad.

The draft constitution also backs a plan to create an EU foreign minister post, in part to boost the EU’s global profile. It wants to have a single person coordinating the Union’s common foreign, security and defense policies. Under the draft plan, the new foreign minister would combine the jobs of Javier Solana, the EU’s current foreign and security policy chief, with that of Chris Patten, the EU’s commissioner for external relations, who controls the foreign aid budget.

British backing

Der britische Außenminister Jack Straw in London

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw

"No one could sensibly argue that a common foreign policy has tied our hands over the past decade, nor will it in the future," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote in the Wednesday edition of the Times of London. Straw came out heavily in favor of the newest draft, saying it would offer Britain a chance to shape the EU.

Countries will also retain a veto over tax policy, which had been a sensitive issue for both Britain and Ireland. But qualified majority voting will be extended to a number of other areas and Brussels will gain new competencies in the areas of asylum and immigration.

The draft proposal is supposed to be submitted to EU leaders at a summit in Greece on June 20. EU governments will then have until next spring to thrash out differences. A new EU constitution will only come into force when all 25 members have ratified it. That is not expected until 2006 at the earliest.

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