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Europe

France, Germany Defend Joint EU Constitution Proposal

Germany and France's foreign ministers sought to build support for their EU Constitution proposal on Tuesday, but faced stiff resistance from members of the constitutional convention.

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France and Germany: Building a bridge for a joint political future

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (photo) faced a tough audience as he spoke before the delegates of Europe's constitutional convention on Tuesday. A day earlier, delegates had angrily debated a joint German-French proposal for the future political framework of the European Union.

Joschka Fischer

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer

Comments made by numerous participants in the convention on Monday suggested the proposal would be met with fierce resistance.

The nuts and bolts

The proposal, first put on the table by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac earlier this month, calls for expanded powers for the heads of both the European Commission and the European Council. The Franco-German proposal would in effect create a dual executive, with a commission president elected by the European Parliament and a Council president elected for a set term by the leaders of the member states. It also refers to the appointment of a European foreign minister -- a job currently split between Javier Solana and Chris Patten.

Frankreichs Präsident Jacques Chirac, Außenminister Dominique de Villepin

French President Jacques Chirac, right, and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin

Speaking before delegates gathered in Brussels on Tuesday, Fischer and his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin (photo, left), sought to build support for the plan. The most important element, Fischer said, "is the election of the Commission president." He argued that giving the Parliament the power to elect the Commission president would give the body teeth. (Currently, the parliament has no binding legal powers.)

"Important compromises"

While acknowledging the tough battle ahead, Fischer also defended the proposal against critics, saying it already represented important compromises between Germany and France. Indeed, Germany had initially hoped to infuse the Commission with more power, but eventually agreed to include the desires of the French, British and Spanish that final say on any key decision remain with the national governments.

Delegates from smaller European countries warned against eliminating the current rotating presidency, fearing that too much power would then be concentrated amongst the EU's largest members, like Germany, France and England. Unlike the current presidency, which rotates every six months, the new president would be elected for a term of up to five years.

The greatest resistance came from the governments of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, who issued a joint declaration stating they would refuse to support the creation of a full-time European Council president.

Critics say plan would weaken Commission

Delegates also criticized the proposal because it would provide both the EU President and EU Commission President with similar political power that could lead to rivalry and policy bottlenecks. Others painted a gloomier picture.

Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament representing the opposition Christian Democratic Union, told the news agency Agence France Presse the proposal would push the Commission into a position below that of the European Council. In that scenario, the important policy decisions of the day would be carried out by the Council, which gives greater clout to larger member countries. He warned of policy being determined bilaterally between countries like Germany and France rather than as a collective European community.

However, Fischer said fears of rivalry between the institutions could be allayed by clear rules defining the responsibilities of each EU body.

Meanwhile, EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Antonio Vitorino cautioned that two competing executive bodies "would not lead to greater efficiency and transparency" in the European Union.

The path to a dynamic EU?

Despite small differences of opinion, the proposal did receive support from the British. Peter Hain, a Welsh delegate at the convention, said he welcomed the proposal, which lays out the path for a "dynamic" EU.

Other members of the convent have been critical of the timing of the Franco-German proposal. Describing the maneuvers made by Germany and France as "a big mistake," German convention representative Peter Altmaier said there is "tremendous distrust" for Germany and France at the convention. Altmaier said Germany and France should have sought to reconcile their own goals with those of the convention before submitting the paper.

More than 105 representatives of the European Commission and member states, as well as members of the European Parliament, are participating in the convent, whose goal it is to produce a draft of an EU constitution by summer. European heads of government then plan to convene a summit during the second half of 2003 to consider the proposal.

Commissioners Call for French, German EU Engine

Guenter Verheugen EU Erweiterungs Kommissar

Guenter Verheugen

In a separate development Tuesday, two French and German Commissioners at the European Union in Brussels -- Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen (photo) and Trade Minister Pascal Lamy -- on Tuesday called for the quasi-merger of the French and German governments in crucial policy areas.

In an essay published jointly by the Berliner Zeitung newspaper and Liberation, Verheugen and Lamy called for the establishment of joint ministries and joint sessions of each country's parliament that would determine policy for both Germany and France in the areas of foreign policy, defense and taxation and budget policy. Without stronger cooperation between Germany and France, the authors warned, the EU would become a watered-down body after it expands from 15 to 25 members in 2004.

Under the proposal, cabinet-level officials from France and Germany would meet on a weekly basis. The move, if adopted by the countries, would be the greatest diplomatic gesture between the two countries since Germany and France -- enemies for hundreds of years -- reconciled with the signing of the Elysee Treaty in 1962. The officials also invited other like-minded European countries to participate in the power-sharing agreement.

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