- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

BRUSSELS — Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who oversaw the creation of a new constitution for Europe, once compared his task to that of Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the American Constitution. Indeed, delegates at the Convention on the Future of Europe, who agonized over the draft treaty for a year and a half, say Mr. Giscard frequently brandished the tiny booklet containing the U.S. charter, extolling its simplicity and succinctness.

Despite his best efforts, though, Mr. d’Estaing’s proposed constitution for the European Union — to be revised and ratified at an intergovernmental conference that began yesterday in Rome — is anything but simple or succinct. It covers more than 200 pages and contains more than 400 articles, an ironic outcome of an exercise intended to streamline the union’s mass of overlapping legal texts and treaties.

Leaders of 25 present and future European Union states drew battle lines yesterday even as the prime ministers and presidents agreed the EU needed a new constitution to ensure Europe’s prosperity and influence.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said the convention had exceeded its mandate by trying to rewrite the voting rules for majority decision-making and warned he was not about to surrender.

French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hinted that countries blocking progress on the constitution might suffer when EU funds were distributed.

Italy conceded that unless the delegates reached a consensus on this reform, the existing charter would remain in force.

Outside the conference in rome, hundreds of demonstrators briefly battled scores of police, who charged the crowd with shields and batons after they were hit by rocks, bottles and flares.

Many say that the current draft was the best compromise for an awkward grouping of countries and cultures. The document was drafted by the European Parliament with representatives from the European Union’s 15 current member states and the 10 East European and Mediterranean countries due to join the union next year.

“There is a world of difference between writing a new constitution for Europe, with its patchwork of traditions, and the Philadelphia convention, which was essentially a bunch of revolutionaries who sat down and wrote on a blank piece of paper,” said Giles Merritt, director of Friends of Europe, an independent think tank.

“You can’t compare 18th-century politics and 21st-century politics. In the legalistic world that we now live in, what we sign up for really matters. It’s not like the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Constitution, who were basically expressing ideals instead of laying down legalistic rules,” he said.

Essentially, the new constitution aims to give the European Union a clearer sense of purpose. The 25-nation body would have a formal legal personality, a bill of rights, new powers over criminal law and immigration, common foreign and defense policies, a “foreign minister” and a permanent EU president, replacing the current system that rotates the presidency through member states every six months.

The draft constitution also proposes to reduce the veto right of individual countries, cut down the size of the European Commission and give stronger lawmaking powers to the European Parliament, the union’s only directly elected body.

“I think it is the greatest step forward in Europe since the [1957] Rome Treaty, which founded the European Community,” said Inigo Mendez De Vigo, a member of the European Parliament and the presidium of the constitutional convention. “What we have done is to rethink everything, to see how Europe has worked and what we can do to improve it in the coming months and years.”

“Our main aim was stability,” said Stefaan De Rynck, the European Commission’s spokesman for institutional reform. “We wanted to create stability and to export that stability to countries that once belonged to totalitarian regimes.”

It’s a grand vision that almost everyone agrees on. Opinions on how it should be achieved, however, remain divided, with battle lines crisscrossing over a multitude of issues from the choice of president to the raising of taxes.

The deepest divide runs between the federalists and the “Euroskeptics.” Though countries such as France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux group (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) want to see more centralized power, Austria, Finland and some smaller new states fear individual nations could lose the right to block some decisions.

“The problem was always going to be to try to reconcile the different positions of the small nation-states and the positions of big countries who did not want to give too much power away, yet … wanted to streamline it, but not make it too powerful, which is a contradiction in itself,” Mr. Merritt said. “The result is a compromise that pleases nobody.”

Nobody in Europe perhaps, but parts of the new constitution should appease people such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry M. Kissinger, who once famously complained that Europe did not have a telephone number. By providing the union with a foreign minister — a figure who basically would assume the combined roles of the union’s foreign-policy representative (now Javier Solana) and the external affairs member of the European Commission (now Chris Patten) — the constitution would give the disparate countries of the region a unified voice.

“What is important, which I think is underrated, is that the constitution gives Europe a more recognizable face,” said Ben Crum, a researcher at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS). “It was confusing for people in the past, especially when the EU president changed every six months. They wondered, ‘Who do I go to? Where does this get us?’ This is the real change and it will help.”

The change may please Mr. Kissinger, but it should make America’s future leaders more circumspect. An EU foreign minister, who also would speak for Europe at the U.N. Security Council, ultimately would make it harder to exploit the rifts on the Continent today. Analysts believe a crisis such as Iraq probably would not happen again when European countries will be compelled to unite on foreign policy.

“I think the EU would have handled Iraq much better if they had had a plan to arrive toward a common decision,” said Mr. Merritt. “The problem now is that Europeans have very divergent views, so it’s difficult to have one policy. So, although having an EU foreign minister will not necessarily unite the EU, it will at least set it on the path to unity.”

America’s war in Iraq, which has bitterly pitted France and Germany against Britain and Spain, highlighted Europe’s divisions. Drafters of the constitution realized more than ever that the union needs not only a common foreign policy but a legal instrument to achieve that goal.

“Iraq coinciding with the drafting of the constitution made an impact,” said Mr. Crum. “Member states now realize you can’t push things through when there is no will to go ahead. So now, there are some mechanisms to bring people closer together.”

Article 15 of the draft constitution spells out that mechanism, which basically encourages countries to tow the Brussels line or be branded disloyal: “Member states shall actively and unreservedly support the Union’s common foreign and security policy in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity and shall comply with the acts adopted by the Union in this area. They shall refrain from action contrary to the Union’s interests or likely to impair its effectiveness.”

If that clause goes through, the implications could be dreadful for the United States. It might lose the independent voices of America-friendly nations in the U.N. Security Council. Already, French President Jacques Chirac has threatened Bulgaria and Romania — two countries hoping to join the union in 2007 — with rejection for supporting the war in Iraq.

In the longer term, a unified Europe also could challenge America’s power even more effectively.

“In 10 years, say, EU foreign policy will be a lot stronger,” said Daniel Gros, director of CEPS. “I mean, the EU has taken over Eastern Europe. Ultimately, there could be 28 countries plus Turkey, [which borders the Middle East] and if, say, the U.S. wanted to invade Iran or Iraq again, we would not take kindly to the U.S. invading us.”

The constitution also calls for a common defense policy, though, in practice, it would mean little without a military force to back it up, Mr. Gros said.

“We have a common economic policy, and it has no impact. We have a common currency and everyone feels it,” he said. “So, the key is not whether we will have a common defense policy but whether we will have a common army.”

Although Europe does intend to create a collective army, U.S. politicians who have expressed nervousness at the thought of a rival military power — particularly if it weakens NATO — should have nothing to fear, European Commission officials say.

“The purpose of a European army is simply to enforce the EU’s foreign policy,” said one senior commissioner. “If the EU is to have a foreign policy, it needs the power to enforce it.”

“Militarily, there is no threat of a second bloc forming here,” confirmed Mr. Crum of the CEPS. “Improvements can be made in efficiency, but we will never get near what the U.S. spends on defense. We are quite happy sitting in the shadow of the U.S. Despite our current differences, we trust, at the end, that America is our ally.”

Where a unified Europe could compete with the United States, however, is in economic might. When the continent becomes a single market, everything from currency to trade could be affected.

“It’s like what they say about the sleeping giant,” said Mr. Gros. “Europe is now getting its act together economically. And when it does, it will restrain the ability of the U.S. to act. For example, the euro is a sideshow now, but it can impact the U.S. economy if it goes wrong.”

Of course, an economically strong Europe also could benefit the United States, mainly by taking on some of the financial burden in matters of defense and security.

“It’s in America’s interest to have another democratic and peaceful force in the world,” said Mr. De Rynck of the European Commission.

Still, whatever the United States stands to gain or lose from Europe’s new constitution, the document will have little meaning for anyone unless the countries involved take it seriously.

“Constitutions don’t make effective foreign policy; they may help,” said Mr. Crum. “Whenever it comes to the position of the EU and the world, the keyword, the standard apology, is political will. You can think of the constitution anyway you want, but with no political will, it won’t work.”

With no political will, neither will the constitution itself see the light of day. For it to take effect, every one of the total of 25 member states expected next year must ratify the treaty. If even one country refuses to sign, the entire agreement will fall apart, leaving Europe not only more divided but without even the legal means to reunite.

“Our hope is that 90 percent of it remains intact,” said Mr. De Rynck. “We have a limited number of issues to clarify and refine. We don’t want it to unravel. It’s not the best way to mobilize Europeans.”

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