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FT Briefing: A new constitution for Europe
By George Parker, Brussels bureau chief
Published: October 2 2003 18:46 | Last Updated: October 2 2003 18:46

European Union leaders and heads of government of the acceding states meet in Rome on October 4 to officially launch an intergovernmental conference that will bring a new constitutional treaty for the enlarged Europe.

What is it?

On May 1 2004 the European Union will expand from 15 to 25 new members, but many of its rules date back to the EU's early days when it was a much smaller club.

The new constitutional treaty aims to modernise the EU, making it more effective and easier to understand. A raft of existing treaties, often amended, will be wrapped up in one single text.

So is it just a "tidying up exercise", as the British government once claimed?

Far from it. The new treaty will create high-profile new EU posts, including a new president and foreign minister, and represents another push towards closer EU integration. New policies will be decided at the European level, including asylum and immigration, and the powers of the European parliament will increase. There will also be a section on the fundamental rights of EU citizens.

Is the treaty ready? 

EU constitution: main points
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No, but its broad outline is already clear. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, spent 17 months chairing the European convention, which produced a draft constitution in July.

Most EU diplomats agree that 95 per cent or more of the Giscard text, hammered out in negotiations between EU foreign ministers, national MPs and members of the European parliament, will be included in the final treaty.

What happens now?

The EU's heads of government and the heads of government of the acceding states meet in Rome on October 4 to officially launch an intergovernmental conference - the final round of treaty negotiations.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and holder of the rotating EU presidency, wants a short, sharp IGC with just a handful of meetings over 10 weeks between foreign ministers and heads of government.

If all goes to schedule, EU leaders will agree the treaty at the Brussels summit on December 13 - probably in the early hours, after much acrimonious debate.

What are the main bones of contention?

-Voting rights: Under an agreement reached in Nice in 2001, Spain and Poland, the EU’s two medium-sized countries, will wield almost as many votes in EU decisions as big countries like Germany and France. They will fight hard to keep the status quo because -they argue-the double majority system proposed in the convention - which defines the qualified majority as 50 per cent of the states and 60 per cent of the EU's population - shifts the balance between member states and increases the weight of the most populous countries. Three of them together could block decisions.

- European Commission: Mr Giscard d'Estaing's proposal of a streamlined Commission of just 15 voting members has found opposition among most smaller countries, which demand the right to send their own person to the Brussels executive.

- Vetoes: Britain and Ireland are doggedly defending national vetoes in every aspect of tax law, along with other areas such as social security for migrant workers.

- Legislative council: The convention proposed a single EU council to decide on European law: a sort of upper house with the European parliament as the lower house. Only a handful of countries support the idea.

- The new posts:  Small member states want to tightly restrict the powers of the new EU president, whom they fear will largely answer to the big countries. The precise role of the foreign minister also has to be hammered out.

- God: Countries like Poland and Spain want a reference to Christianity in the treaty preamble, France does not. An unholy trade-off between the Almighty and EU voting rights beckons.

Is that the end of the story?

No. Although it is not easy to get 25 politicians to agree a new treaty, it will be even harder to sell the final package to the EU's 450m citizens.

All 25 member states have to ratify the treaty for it to come into force, and most will do it through parliamentary votes, including Germany and Britain.

However others may hold referendums, including Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and possibly France.

Recent referendums in existing EU members on European questions have been answered with a No, or a very grudging Yes, so the battle to get the treaty ratified could be tough.

What happens if a country refuses to ratify?

In theory the treaty dies, and a Europe of 25 will have to muddle through using old procedures and without any of the new powers.

In practice, if only two or three countries say No, they would be given the chance to change their minds. But if they kept saying No, the other countries could decide to reconstitute an EU Mark II using the new treaty.

That would mean that one or more countries could be expelled from the union. Unless, of course, the country saying No was a big country like France. In that case all bets would be off.

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