Although the EU Constitution has plenty of flaws and it still has to be ratified by member states, it reflects a compromise and marks the dawning of a new era, says DW's Bernd Riegert.
History is being written on Rome's Capitoline Hill
The first European Constitution isn't a constitution in the obvious sense. It marks neither the founding of a new European super-state, nor does it iron out the many differences between the bloc's 25 nations.
The "constitution" label basically describes a new treaty based on international law between sovereign states, which joins together the various treaties in EU history, ranging from Rome and Maastricht to Amsterdam and Nice.
It foresees streamlining European law and allowing for a more transparent relationship between the institutions -- although the EU Commission, currently a major sticking point, still occupies an uneasy position between the European Council and the parliament.
The constitution will also be introducing two new top positions: an EU president appointed by the council as its representative for two years; and a European foreign minister expected to represent the EU's foreign policy -- sketchy as this may be -- on the world stage.
Greater scope for identification
What is new, however, is the constitution's proposed voting system. All but the most sensitive EU decisions are now to be decided by a so-called "double majority" system under which an EU decision would need support of 55 percent of member countries, representing 65 percent of the bloc's population.
Majority decision-making is set to be introduced in certain areas for the first time, while it won't apply in areas such as foreign, economic and defense policy -- those areas particularly sensitive to national interests.
The role of the parliament, which this week bared its teeth and showed the commission who's boss, is set to be strengthened, while the leading role of the council, which represents the member states, remains unchanged.
Headquarters of the European Commission, the Breydel building
Supporters of the new constitution hope it will give the people of Europe greater scope to identify with their historically unique union. Its detractors, meanwhile, believe that the highly complex constitution is packed with impenetrable legalese that leaves Brussels with even more of a bureaucratic headache than ever.
But will it ever take effect?
It will be interesting to see how implementing the constitution develops. Establishing a standardized, user-friendly legal framework for the recently-expanded 25 bloc was clearly long overdue.
But will it ever take effect? It still has to be ratified in every member state over the next two years, and at least eight of them are expected to hold a referendum next year. Past experience in France, Ireland, Denmark and Sweden has shown that the electorate often defies the ambitions of the political elite.
It seems highly likely that people in Britain, Poland and France will reject the constitution. It looks as though Germany, meanwhile, the bloc's largest member, has decided to rule out a referendum on the grounds that the constitution is so complex and important that it makes a simple yes or no impossible. Moreover, it's an issue that could all too easily be co-opted by domestic, populist lobby groups.
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
Everyone agrees that the constitution, as fleshed out by a European Convention of lawmakers and national representatives headed by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing (pictured), is a compromise. But under the circumstances, it's the best that could be hoped for.
It has obvious weaknesses. The possibility, for example, of altering its existing form has not been addressed. Again, the question is unanimity. Nonetheless, it's apparent even today that the constitution will need rewriting in the not too distant future. The possibility of Turkey's accession will make this necessary, for a start.
Admitting a country with Turkey's size and population will require immediate overhauling of the Constitution's decision-making processes as well as its economic stipulations. The accession treaty to be signed by up to 28 states (including current members as well as the next round of candidates Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia) will necessitate new international law and also require an altered constitution.
A new era
What began in Rome in 1957 as a six-member body is now poised on the threshold of a new era. The constitution illustrates just how far peaceful integration within post-war Europe has come. It's a path that can only lead forward, and despite the many obstacles strewn along the way, it's one that blazes a trail for other parts of the world.
If the constitution does not take effect in 2007 as planned, it would hardly spell the end of the EU. Previous treaties would simply retain their validity. Europe would have to pull itself together and hope for better luck next time.