Valery Giscard d'Estaing, head of the EU constitutional convention, is being awarded the Charlemagne Prize for his efforts in European integration. But the former French president is not without his critics.
Valery Giscard d'Estaing is helping to shape the future of Europe.
On Thursday, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, former president of France and the current chairman of the Convention on the Future of Europe, will be awarded the Charlemagne Prize -- one of Germany's greatest honors.
The prize, awarded every year since 1950, is given to a prominent politician who has made a significant contribution to European integration -- it's the highest honor awarded to a politician working in that area, akin to the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is named after Charlemagne (Karl the Great in Germany), the French emperor who from 800 through 814 successfully united Europe under one ruler.
European Convention President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, right gestures next to EU Commission President Romano Prodi.
As chairman of the convention, Giscard d'Estaing has spent the last two-and-a-half years -- along with 105 other members of the convention -- hammering out the draft of a constitution for Europe. The constitution is aimed at streamlining the EU's institutions before enlargement increases the number of members from 15 to 25 in 2004. Given the delicate nature of the task, Giscard d'Estaing, not surprisingly, has both supporters and critics. Paving the way for European integration
The 78-year-old Frenchman has a special relationship to Germany: He was born in Koblenz, in the Rhineland region in 1926. After completing his studies at an elite Paris university, he was named Finance Minister and was later elected, in 1974, as president of France.
His roots as a booster of European unity go back far. As president of France, he found a kindred spirit in former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. The German-French duo laid the foundations for monetary integration and the introduction of the euro. Reborn as a Euro Politican
At the start of the 1980's, it appeared that Giscard d'Estaing's time as a high-ranking politician in France was over. At the same time that Schmidt was displaced by Helmut Kohl, Giscard d'Estaing was forced to give up his post as president. He had quarrelled with prime minister Jacques Chirac and then lost the election to Francois Mitterand.
Yet, Giscard d'Estaing did not give up his dream of working at the top level of a united Europe, and he remained an active supporter of further integration. Along with Helmut Schmidt, he founded the Committee for European Economic Union in 1986. And he made his desire to hold another top position within the Union well known.
Giscard d'Estaing had hoped to serve as president of the European Central Bank, but failed to attain the post. Later, he hoped to become General Director of the International Monetary Union, but was likewise frustrated in his efforts.
Ultimately, he achieved his ambitions, and was named Chairman of the Convention on the Future of Europe at the Laeken Summit in December 2001. He was charged with the task of guiding the reform of European Union's institutions and drafting a constitution that would increase the efficiency and efficacy of the EU post enlargement.
A blast from the past?
When Giscard d'Estaing was first named to the position, some expressed concern that he was too old for the job, a politician who represented the past -- not the forward thinking ambitions of a united Europe. Some even called him the "Opa of Europe" (Grandfather of Europe).
Yet Giscard d'Estaing took complaints about his age in stride. In fact, at times he even considered them a compliment, pointing out that General Charles de Gaulle was elected head of state at the ripe old age of 75.
European visionary or arrogant pot stirrer?
To some, Giscard d'Estaing is a man with a vision. Others paint him as arrogant, stubborn, and prone to supporting the interests of larger states (namely Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland).
Indeed, Giscard d'Estaing has done much to add fuel to the fire. In April, he released his personal suggestions for the reform of the Union without discussing them with other members of the Convention. (Among his suggestions: a permanent president for the European Council, which would replace the current rotating presidency).
Some claimed Giscard d'Estaing was taking on the role of a figurative midwife who wanted to determine the sex of the child. His colleagues reacted harshly, saying that Giscard d'Estaing's opinions were his own, and they did not represent those of the Convention.
What's more, Giscard d'Estaing also made known his position on the entry of Turkey into the European Union, saying that Turkey simply wasn't "European" and that its inclusion would result in the "end of the European Union." His remarks came just weeks after the Copenhagen EU summit, where leaders said they would not rule out the possibility of Turkey joining the union as long as the present government continued to make the necessary democratic reforms.
Pushing the debate forward
Awarding Giscard d'Estaing the Charlemagne Prize does not necessarily represent unconditional support on the part of the judges for his methods and opinions. Nonetheless, popular or not, his achievements have helped to foster and advance the much-needed debate over the future of Europe. If things go the way Giscard d'Estaing would like them to, the EU will emerge from the convention more efficient and better equipped to deal with the challenges of the future. The extent to which one can credit Giscard d'Estaing for the outcome may be open to debate, but he has certainly made a contribution.