Monday, June 2, 2003

God is out, a European foreign policy czar is in, and some bare-knuckle brawling is almost guaranteed as citizens of 25 current and future EU nations begin digesting the first official draft of a continentwide constitution.

To muted praise and angry criticism, a 105-member Convention on the Future of Europe last week released the text of proposed constitution designed for the European Union — an effort to reform and rebuild the creaky governing structure in Brussels, which is in danger of seizing up altogether when the community adds 10 new Central and East European nations next year.

A summit of EU leaders will debate the draft text in Salonika, Greece, on June 20, with delegates hoping to have a final text in time for a second summit in Rome in October.

Convention Chairman Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the 71-year-old former president of France, has projected a calm demeanor in the face of sharp criticism that the draft either went too far in revamping the European Union or didn’t go far enough.

“The criticisms expressed here and there are natural. We mustn’t make a drama out of it,” Mr. Giscard said Friday during consultations with members of the European Parliament in Brussels.

But the drama is under way nevertheless, for the debate has raised fundamental questions of security and justice, of the clash between central control and national rights, and of the balance of power between Europe’s large and small states.

Said Jan Eliasson, Sweden’s ambassador to the United States: “Going from 15 states to 25 means you are basically forced to redistribute powers inside the EU. Such discussions of power are always going to be delicate.”

The first words of the draft provoked one of the first controversies, as spokesmen for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church condemned the omission of any reference to Europe’s Christian heritage in the preamble.

“The text has not had the courage to recognize the historical fact of the influence of Christianity in European culture,” said Cardinal Roberto Tucci, president of Radio Vatican.

The preamble has also come under fire from fans of political rhetoric, who say its dry language about “confer[ring] competences” to “attain objectives” lacks the simplicity and grandeur of the American “We the people” model.

Among the major practical changes embodied in the new constitution: the appointment of a single EU foreign policy minister; new limits on the right of individual countries or small groups to veto EU decisions; increased power for the directly elected European Parliament; and greater authority for the European Union to act in such areas as energy policy, immigration, transportation and cross-border crime.

Frans van Daele, Belgium’s ambassador to the United States, said the EU faced a tension between “broadening” the EU far beyond its original six members while “deepening” the body’s ability to act.

“When you make the sailboat bigger, you need a deeper keel,” he said. “It’s a law of institutional physics.”

But mathematical precision has given way to political horse-trading in a number of sensitive areas.

Certain functions, such as taxation and national security, would either be reserved for member states or require unanimous approval by all 25 EU members to take effect.

The word “federal,” a red flag for “Euroskeptics” in Britain and Scandinavia, appears nowhere in the draft text. The European Union, instead, will act “in the Community way.”

Mr. Giscard failed to persuade the convention to adopt another hot-button reform: the creation of a new EU president who could serve up to five years, replacing the widely criticized six-month rotating presidency that is taken in turn by each of the EU members.

The proposal has been bitterly opposed by the European Union’s smaller states, who fear the president will almost certainly come from Britain, France, Germany or one of the other large EU states, further diluting their clout in Brussels.

The debate has been especially fierce in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair confronts an electorate and a popular press deeply skeptical of Brussels.

The London Daily Mail last week pressed a reluctant Mr. Blair to hold a popular referendum on the final constitution draft, saying in an editorial Mr. Blair “is desperate to avoid the moment of truth.”

With the release of the draft text, “it becomes even more obvious that EU law and regulation will reach into every corner of British life and strip away the powers that make us a sovereign state,” the newspaper said.

Mr. Blair’s government has tried to play down the significance of the draft treaty, arguing in one minister’s words that the constitution is merely a “tidying up” of past EU accords.

“I think, in the end, when people really reflect on this, they will come to a more measured view than some of the hysteria that has been generated by this debate,” Mr. Blair said.

In a twist, Romano Prodi, the Italian who heads the European Union’s executive arm known as the European Commission, agrees with Mr. Blair that the constitution represents only modest change — too modest, in his view.

“Despite all the hard work we have put into this, the text that is now before us simply lacks vision and ambition,” Mr. Prodi said. “It is in some respect a step backwards.”

The changes embodied in the draft constitution have sparked a debate across Europe over whether voters should be asked to approve or reject the blueprint directly.

Denmark has said it will hold a referendum, while Sweden and Britain are opposed to such a vote.

With the debate set to heat up over the next five months, EU partisans say the European Union’s best asset may be its historical ability to muddle through, fudging what it cannot solve and settling for small steps when giant leaps are impossible.

“We may need more poets for the preamble, but we need more engineers for the text,” said Mr. Eliasson.

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