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Europe

EU Constitution Dominates Debate at Summit

A proposed draft for an EU constitution dominated debate at the European Union leaders' meeting in Greece. Immigration and asylum policy were also high on the agenda of the three-day summit.

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With a constitution the EU hopes to function better after enlargement

On the second day of the European Union summit in Porto Carras, Greece, EU leaders turned their attention to the primary purpose of their gathering – the discussion of a landmark draft constitution aimed at reforming the union’s lumbering institutions ahead of the bloc's enlargement next year.

Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing handed over the proposed draft to the 15 current and 10 future member states. The constitution – the first for the EU – was hammered out over the course of 16 months.

It sets out the guidelines for streamlining decision-making in a body that will soon grow to include many countries from formerly communist East Europe. While most of the controversial issues have been ironed out, a few EU governments are expected to raise some objections.

A good starting basis

The blueprint was given near unanimous approval last week by the Convention on the Future of Europe, which is headed by Giscard and includes national and European parliamentarians as well as government and European Commission representatives. At Friday’s session, the leaders were expected to endorse it in their final statement as "a good basis for starting" the Inter-government Conference (IGC) talks on the final EU constitution in October.

As it stands now, the draft calls for the creation of a long-term European Council president, which would replace the current 6-month rotating presidency, the establishment of an EU foreign minister, a slimmed-down commission, and the reduction of the right of national veto.

"The compromise that is included in Mr. Giscard’s proposal is a good compromise," said summit host Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, but added, in light of the anticipated discussion, "It is a compromise that can be further amended, improved, a different balance might be achieved in the text."

Giscard has urged EU leaders to change as little as possible. But the Greek summit is the first chance the leaders have to flag those points they will absolutely not accept in the final round of IGC talks in October.

One of the main stumbling blocks is the inclusion of "qualified majority voting" provisions rather than the simple majority voting called for in the draft. Leaders from several smaller countries have signaled that they will seek to amend the draft in the final negotiations in order to preserve a weighted voting system that grants them power disproportionate to their population.

Britain has also said it will push to retain veto power on issues of taxation and foreign policy. And smaller EU countries have indicated they will oppose the full-time presidency out of fear that it would lead to domination by heavyweight states such as Germany and France.

Illegal immigration and asylum

The opening day of the summit on Thursday was dominated by the issue of illegal immigration and asylum.

A British proposal to set up what Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to as "zones of protection" for refugees near conflict areas to help stem the flow of asylum-seekers into Europe met with little support from member states and hefty criticism from human rights groups. Only Denmark and the Netherlands seemed to even consider the proposal.

Jan Peter Balkenende

Jan Peter Balkenende

"We support the idea of keeping people in the region they actually come from. It would make it much easier for them to return home once the situation is safe for them again," said Jan-Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister.

Although Britain backed down from the controversial plans, EU leaders did agree that the European Commission should examine ways to enhance protection for refugees in regions of conflict and in the first country that they seek asylum. A report is expected to be presented on the issue by June of next year.

The decision over how many refugees any EU member will take in remains with the individual state, however, and is not likely to change any time soon.

EU leaders also agreed to invest 140 million euros ($163 million) in protecting the Union’s borders against illegal immigrants. Within the next year, the EU’s frontier will expand east to touch the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, porous border regions especially prone to the smuggling of illegal immigrants.

European security strategy

The EU leaders on Thursday also discussed foreign policy issues and their new commitment to fighting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. In a draft statement, the leaders demanded that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program and expressed concern over Iran’s development of a nuclear program. They urged Tehran to accept spot checks on its atomic facilities in order to disperse assertions that it is developing illegal weapons.

On other issues, the EU leaders endorsed an embryonic European security strategy drawn up by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and they vowed to work actively alongside the United States in combating terrorism.

The leaders also reaffirmed their role of peace-negotiator in the Middle East and said pressure needed to be applied to both Israel and the Palestinians in order to get peace talks underway.

Protesters on the sidelines

Demonstration EU-Gipfel in Thessaloniki

Protesters in Greece

Outside the summit, police on Friday fired tear gas and water cannons into a crowd of as many as 500 protestors, including anarchists, after they attempted to tear down the barricades leading into the hotel where the summit was being held. But most of the estimated 3,500 demonstrators were peaceful.

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