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
Is the treaty ready?
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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.