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Europe

EU Presidency Proposal Highlights Power Struggle

Six months or five years? Controversy over the length of the EU presidency is expected to dominate talks today as the Convention on the Future of Europe continues its debate.

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Hammering out the details: EU Convention President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's controversial proposals lead to heated debate.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, ex-president of France and current president of the Convention on the Future of Europe, is always good for making surprising, publicity-getting comments. For example, late last year he revved up the debate over Turkey's proposed entry into the EU by saying such an event would be "the end of the EU."

With his latest suggestion Giscard has once again raised hackles at the European Commission and European Parliament. On Wednesday Giscard called for a permanent European Union chairman chosen by EU leaders to replace the present six-month rotation of the EU presidency among member states.

Struggle for Power

The surprise proposal -- that the EU presidency switch from a rotating six-month appointment to a term that would last between two-and-a-half and five years -- threw the Convention for a loop yesterday and brought a long-standing EU power struggle into focus.

The idea is expected to dominate debate today as all 105 Convention members gather for talks on the future shape of EU institutions. The Convention is due to present a draft constitution to EU leaders by the end of June. The 15-nation EU is slated to be joined by 10 new members in May, 2004.

In addition to the permanent presidency, Giscard suggested the creation of an EU vice president, a powerful joint EU foreign minister, and a new, smaller Commission to steer EU business.

The "big five" EU states -- France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain -- all favor the idea of the long-term presidency, but the majority of smaller countries, as well as the federally-minded European Parliament and current executive Commission, oppose it. They fear such a strong presidency and smaller commission would sap their authority.

Präsident EU-Konvent Romano Prodi und Präsident der EU-Kommission Valery Giscard d'Estaing

Giscard d'Estaing (right) gestures next to EU Commissioner Romano Prodi during a press conference in Athens in April.

According to EU Commissioner Romano Prodi (right, with Giscard), Giscard's blueprint failed to capture the spirit of reform that was discussed at the latest EU summit in Athens. The reform could lead to unequal treatment of member states, and would jeopardize trust between them, he said.

Also, he said, the move would create rival bureaucracies and undermine accountability and effectiveness.

"Increasing the number of presidents and vice presidents, setting up a bureau, can only bring confusion. Duplication of bureaucracies goes against common sense and against indications coming from all sides," the EU executive said in a statement.

Following closed-door debate on Wednesday, the convention's presidium eventually forced Giscard to drop the idea of the vice presidency, and pushed off the idea of the smaller Commission to the distant future.

'Autistic' Proposal

However, it held on to the idea of the permanent president of the European Council, the bloc's highest political body, who would prepare and chair EU summits.

It also upheld the idea of the foreign minister, to be appointed by EU leaders but with a seat on the Commission, to conduct the bloc's emerging common foreign and security policy.

Speaking for the European Parliament, senior Christian Democrat Elmar Brok condemned Giscard's proposals as "autistic."

"This is purely about reducing the powers of smaller EU countries, the Commission and the European Parliament," he said.