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Europe

EU Convention Reaches Compromise

The debate over how to reform the European Union’s institutions heated up this week, as officials came up with a compromise to avoid scuttling a draft constitution only two weeks ahead of a key summit.

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Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is heading up the EU's constitutional convention.

After an ugly week of diplomatic wrangling, the chairman of the constitutional convention, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, said on Friday that “a basis for a final consensus” on a new draft had been found.

On June 20, EU leaders are to meet in Greece to give their blessing to a draft European constitution enabling the bloc to function when it expands from 15 to 25 members next year. When the 105-member constitutional convention last month presented its latest working text, it was immediately attacked on several fronts.

Whereas smaller EU members and candidate countries complained the draft amounted to a power grab by the largest European nations, other member states feared the constitution was too federalist and integrationist. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on Thursday evening said the convention was in the midst of a crisis.

“Some might be content with a minimal compromise but we won’t be,” said de Villepin. “No constitution for Europe is still better than a bad comprise.”

Ending the rotating presidency

At the heart of the controversy are proposals to create a permanent president or chairman of the European Council, which 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 complain this reduces the effectiveness and dilutes the focus of the presidency.

The new draft constitution 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.

With the summit in Greece looming, the convention presidium, led by Giscard, has come under immense pressure to hammer out a deal acceptable to all sides. On Friday, German presidium member Elmar Brok said momentum for a compromise was building.

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"We are on a good way to consensus. Everything is moving in the right direction," said Brok, a Christian Democrat member of the European Parliament, according to the Reuters news agency.

Limiting the president's power

Brok said the 13 members of the convention presidium had come to agreement on how to handle the issue of the European Council president. He said the president's powers would be limited, in a concession to small nations and the executive European Commission that fear the position might be too powerful.

Trying to balance conflicting interests, the latest compromise would forbid the president from interfering in the work of the Commission chief or of a planned new EU foreign minister. But in an important change, the president could be a member of another EU institution, clearing the way for the possible fusion in the future of the posts of president of the European Council and of the Commission – a tip to EU federalists.

The new deal also will keep Giscard’s preferred voting system, which would allow most EU decision-making to be done by majority voting, whereby at least half of the member states representing at least 60 percent of the EU's total population backed an issue.

After the draft is presented to Europe’s leaders in Greece, EU governments will 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 and most of the reforms would not apply until the current European Commission steps down in 2009.

DW staff with wire reports.

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