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Europe

EU Struggles with Democratic Makeover

A new body takes up work in Brussels to overhaul the European Union and draft a proposal for a constitution for a enlarged Europe. But not without the usual scenes of discord that seem to mark all EU meets.

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Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar makes the inaugural speech during the first meeting of the European Convention in Brussels

The 105-member European Convention that kicked off yesterday in Brussels has some very lofty goals: to make the 15-nation bloc more democratic and efficient as it enlarges to 25 or 30 states, to overhaul the EU's creaking institutions and above all to persuade Europe's citizens that the EU is relevant to their daily lives.

It's a historic moment for the EU.

The convention marks the first time that a democratic forum has a say in reshaping the 54-year-old EU, and the first time that ex-communist central and east European countries are involved in reforming the bloc they hope to join by 2004.

Another important issue that the convention will tackle is the distribution of power between Brussels, the seat of the EU, and member states and regional authorities. This will inevitably lead to debates on whether the EU should develop a comprehensive foreign policy or a standard taxation policy.

Veteran former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing said in his inaugural address that his aim was to build a consensus opening the way for a "constitutional treaty" for Europe.

Critics doubt EU's ability

But considering the ambitious list of goals that the convention has set for itself, the question arises whether the EU has bitten off more than it can chew?

Dogged by controversies and bickering among member states, the EU has in the past often been bogged down by charges of inefficiency and as being too bureaucratic.

The present convention too has its share of critics. The Chairman and former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing was appointed to the post amid much discontent after the incumbent French President Chirac threatened to veto any other choices.

Many feel that the 76-year-old Giscard d'Estaing is the wrong choice of candidate to bridge the gap between the EU and its citizens and that the convention group as a whole features too many aged politicians and not enough women.

Candidate countries want own national languages

The convention also appeared to get off on the wrong foot after several candidate countries for EU membership complained of being treated as second class citizens and demanded more clout and the right to use their national languages in the proceedings.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan spoke for the 39 delegates from candidate countries when he insisted that they be represented in the 12-member Presidium that will steer the convention. "After all representatives from candidate countries constitute a large part of the Convention", he told the first working session.

Critics have denounced as undemocratic the fact that a 12-member Presidium, and not the convention delegates will decide what reform options and issues will be up for discussion.

Polish Premier Jozef Oleksy also feared that all important decisions would be taken by the Presidium and the Convention "will just be there to rubber-stamp them".

Another sore point among several EU hopefuls is that they will not be able to use their national languages at the Conventions's sessions, though they are aware that the demand will substantially increase the cost of translation. The convention is due to meet around 20 times over the coming year.

Nevertheless in his opening speech, Giscard d'Estaing repeated the phrase "ladies and gentleman" in all 11 EU languages and also in Polish, the language of the biggest country waiting for EU membership.

But that obviously didn't appease the other East European EU candidates.

Hopeful voices among critical ones

But despite the oft repeated discord and wrangling, supporters of closer EU integration hope that the convention will develop important proposals that governments will not be able to ignore.

European Parliament President Pat Cox told the Convention: "In the annals of European treaty reform, I believe today marks a decisive and revolutionary step forward for European democracy and for the parliamentary method. This convention strikes a blow for openness and transparency, for innovation and creativity."

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