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By Vaiju Naravane
ON JUNE 22, at the European Union summit in Thessalonica, Greece, a minor miracle took place. Leaders from the E.U.'s current 15 and future 10 member-states gave near unanimous approval to a draft European Constitution, endorsing it as "a good basis" for further negotiation at an inter-governmental conference in Rome next October.
While it was indeed a miracle that agreement was reached at all, the achievement rang somewhat hollow, given the fact that the most contentious issues were set aside for further negotiation. Be that as it may, the blueprint marks the end of over 16 month's labour by the 105-strong Convention on the Future of Europe headed by the former French President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, and made up of national government Ministers, Euro-MPs, MPs and the European Commission.
For several years now, European leaders have been aware that the E.U. is in a state of economic and political drift. The lack of a coherent and unified foreign and defence policy has reduced it to the stature of a political dwarf with its constituent governments fighting each other on the international stage. Faced with the size and clout of the United States and in the near or distant future the possibility of a strong Russia, China or India, Europe, if it is to play a significant role in world affairs, has to overhaul its bulky bureaucracy and paralysing system of internal checks and balances and make its dissonant parts sing in harmony.
Despite hesitation and even reluctance in certain quarters, Europe is finally readying itself to face the fundamental question of its own worldview. Enlargement will mark the end of the E.U. as it now exists. Nearly 30 nations cannot possibly function as the present 15-member Union does. The "skeleton" Constitution as Mr. Giscard d'Estaing calls it, sets out the guidelines for streamlining decision-making in a body expected to expand to almost twice its current size.
The fundamental issue, however, is not as much about technocratic management of the Union's institutions as it is about its very identity. It involves deciding what Europe is, what it aspires to be. Essential to this debate is the question of religion.
In the present situation, with 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe, two separate European identities are struggling to coexist. Both have their origins in ancient Greece and republican and imperial Rome, and have been shaped by Christianity. Western and Central Europe have also been formed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Revolution and Liberalism.
These states contrast sharply with East European nations. Their ways bifurcated as long ago as 1054, when a political and religious schism divided Roman Catholic Europe from Byzantine or Orthodox Christianity, most of which later fell under Muslim rule. Orthodox Europe became part of the E.U. when Greece joined, with Bulgaria, Romania and others expected to follow.
For several countries, especially deeply religious countries like Poland, Spain or Italy, it is important to mention the Judeo-Christian fountainhead of European civilisation. For others such as France, where secular, egalitarian and republican values take precedence over religion and where there is a total separation of church and state, any mention of a specific religion is unacceptable.
September 11 and the "clash of civilisations debate" has made this debate more acute, crystallising it around the admission of Turkey, which recently elected an Islamic party to power. With the Pope urging the inclusion of a specific mention of Europe's Christian values and origins, the issue of Turkish membership in the European Union has become extremely controversial.
For several years Turkey, an official E.U. candidate, has been waiting in the wings only to see "Christian" countries such as Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic fly past to full membership. Now Ankara has been promised an answer in 2004. Mr. Giscard d'Estaing reopened the question of its admission arguing that Muslim Turkey belongs to a great but different civilisation, not that of Europe. He said that because of Turkey's size, its membership would unbalance the E.U. and its institutions.
Turkey's population of 70 million is growing steadily, while that of Germany, the E.U.'s most populous state (82 million), is declining. If Turkey were admitted to the E.U., the former President said, then Morocco and other non-European states, such as Lebanon and Israel, would reasonably expect to follow. The result "would be the end of the European Union."The second debate centres on federalism. Will Europe be an integrated federation of countries or regions or a "Europe of nations," with mutual security guarantees and an independent foreign and security policy? Or will it remain essentially an economic bloc, as Britain would prefer, or serve as a regional group within a reinforced Atlantic system, if the U.S. were to have its way?
Mr. Giscard d'Estaing has surprised many observers by getting a broad consensus for the document, described as a compromise between caution and ambition.
The draft makes four key proposals: The election of an E.U. president for a fixed term to replace the current rotating presidency; the nomination or election of an E.U. Foreign Minister; the adoption of a common foreign and defence policy and a legally binding charter of rights.
The "skeleton" Constitution calls for the election of a long-term European Council head, an executive figure, perhaps a president, elected by the council (the decision-making body representing the member governments), who would become Europe's geopolitical representative to the world. Such sweeping reform of the system is necessary if the bloc, which expands from 15 to 25 member-states next year, wants to avoid decision-making paralysis. The idea is that a president appointed from among former national leaders for up to five years would give the E.U. continuity, instead of the current "musical chairs" system in which the Council presidency rotates among member states every six months.
The draft Constitution also calls for the establishment of an E.U. Foreign Minister, a slimmed-down commission, and the reduction of the right of national veto. The inclusion of provisions for "qualified majority voting" rather than simple majority voting is likely to be one of the main stumbling blocks.
Leaders from several smaller countries such as Denmark, Portugal and Austria have signalled their opposition to a redesigned presidency which they claim would be dominated by the big states. Since the Council president chairs E.U. summits and helps set the E.U.'s strategic course, smaller nations fear the new structure would cement larger members' hold on power. They also fear the draft plan would weaken the role of the European Commission, the body which proposes laws and enforces common E.U. policies.
Smaller E.U. states are angry at the presidential plans, fearing that heavyweights like Britain, France and Germany, which already dominate the Union, will emerge stronger. They have also indicated that they will seek to amend the draft in the final negotiations in order to preserve a weighted voting system that grants them power disproportionate to their population
The draft Constitution also calls on member-states to "unreservedly" back a common foreign policy for the E.U. It also seeks a "legal personality" for Europe incorporating a legally binding charter of fundamental rights, with common labour and social policies. The draft constitution will be debated at an inter-governmental conference in Rome starting October 4 to be organised by Italy, which currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency. The aim is to win approval for the new constitution before another 10 nations join the E.U. in May 2004.
The Spanish and Polish do not like a new system of qualified majority voting, for example, which would weaken their power. Britain objects in turn to a clause which would allow heads of state and government to decide new areas for majority voting without a further treaty change. Eurosceptics in Denmark hope to prevent adoption in a referendum by saying that it goes too far towards integration. Some Catholic countries, such as Italy, Poland or Malta want a specific reference to Christianity.
For the federalists, like France or Germany, the draft treaty is disappointing in its present form and they do not want it to be further weakened. They are strongly in favour of creating the post of an E.U. Foreign Minister, in part to boost the E.U.'s global profile and to have a single person coordinating the Union's common foreign, security and defence policies. Under the draft plan, the new Foreign Minister would combine the jobs of Javier Solana, the E.U.'s current foreign and security policy chief, with that of Chris Patten, the E.U.'s Commissioner for external relations, who controls the foreign aid budget. A new E.U. Constitution will only come into force when all 25 members have ratified it. That is not expected until 2006 at the earliest. But before that happens a long and tough fight lies ahead.
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