EU leaders convene to chart Europe's future

Yesterday, officials began discussing the option of a continental constitution.

Breaking a half-century tradition of closed-door meetings and backroom deals, the European Union yesterday threw open a wide-ranging convention to decide who governs Europe and to what purpose.

With half an eye on a similar conclave that gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, the 105 delegates' meeting in Brussels hopes to draft a constitution for a redefined Europe, as the EU prepares to nearly double its membership.

"We are entering a new period, a new century, we should redefine our aims and then look again at our structures," said Valery Giscard d'Estaing recently.

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, will chair the "Convention on the Future of Europe." The convention, which will last a year, is likely to become a battleground between those who envision a federal Europe, with most power in the hands of centralized European institutions, and those who are anxious to keep more authority in the hands of national governments.

"The fundamental question is where the dividing line will fall in the end between those who want to do more and those who want to do less" together as Europeans, says Kirsty Hughes, an analyst with the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank.

Underlying that debate is the question of how to reforge democratic institutions to reflect the desires of more than 350 million citizens from more than 20 countries with widely differing histories and traditions.

Just as the conventioneers in Philadelphia who wrote the US Constitution designed a democracy that would become the largest in the world, "the European Union experience calls for an intellectual revolution of the same order," wrote Yves Meny, head of the European University, in the French daily Le Monde.

That's a lot to ask on a continent where citizens complain that they feel out of touch with the elitist and secretive Euro-bureaucrats who run much of their lives. A recent EU-wide opinion poll found that only 48 percent of Europeans feel that their country's membership in the Union is a good thing, and elections to the European parliament drew just 23 percent of Britons to the polls at the last vote.

The EU "exists for its citizens, not for the political elites" said Jack Straw, the British Foreign Minister, in a recent speech. Reform, he argued, should create "an EU which is better understood, better liked, and with which our citizens are familiar and comfortable."

The convention, whose proceedings will be broadcast live on the Internet, will hear submissions from trade unions, church groups, and other NGOs.

The idea of a constitution itself pits members of the convention against one another. Some see such a document as leading inexorably to a single European super-state; others say a constitution is essential to give form to the continent's future.

NATIONAL governments, which are clearly nervous about where the convention might lead, would prefer the delegates come up with various options, which they could choose from or ignore. Giscard d'Estaing, however, has said he is aiming for a "unique, complete document which should be a constituent instrument" - in other words, a constitution.

The convention will address key institutional issues, such as where the balance of power should lie between the European Commission, national governments, and the regions. But it will also look at how far European writ should run - whether all members should submit to a common tax regime, for example, or whether the single agricultural policy can be sustained.

"We are deeply divided about fundamental questions, and it is a very moot point whether we will arrive at a meaningful consensus," says Peter Ludlow, author and head of Eurocomment, a Brussels-based research organization.

But on the eve of the EU's enlargement, he adds, "we need to articulate what we have done...to serve as a point of reference."

By 2004, 10 countries from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean are expected to have joined the current 15 members, stretching institutional mechanisms that were designed for the original six founder nations.

"Now is the time for a political decision, because we cannot have endless wrangling between the federalists and the intergovernmentalists," says Dr. Hughes.

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