Set for 2006: e pluribus Europe

The draft of Europe's first constitution will be presented Friday at a summit in Greece.

Wherever you walk in this city's eastern district, construction crews are busy on earthmovers, cranes and facades of scaffolding as they raise another edifice to house new European Union offices.

This weekend, EU leaders will inspect the central pillar of a different kind of architecture: a draft European constitution that its framers hope will give stability and strength to the Continent's political structure as the Union prepares to expand eastward.

In 224 pages, the weighty tome sets out for a generally bemused public exactly who decides what and how in the European Union, weighing the interests of individual member states against its supranational ambitions.

"The result is not perfect, but it is more than could have been hoped for," said Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who chaired the prickly 16-month convention that drew up the constitution as he unveiled it last week. "We have sown the seeds from which, in time, a real people of Europe, a European demos will sprout."

Europe has been tied together economically through its common market, but with the new document, hopes are that a common sense of citizenship and identity will emerge among the Continent's 450 million people.

Mr. Giscard d'Estaing will present the document to a European summit that opened Thursday evening in Salonika, Greece, attended by heads of government from the 15 current EU members and from the 10 - mostly East European - nations that will join next year. Their initial review will pave the way for an intergovernmental conference later this year that could amend the draft.

Emerging from months of painstaking negotiations between large countries and small ones; between advocates of a federal system and those more attached to the nation state; and between representatives of governments, European civil servants, and parliamentarians, the text is a compromise.

Though it satisfies nobody fully, it proved acceptable to almost all the 105 delegates to the convention.

"This document does explicitly base itself on the hybrid character of the EU, which is a union of states and of people," says Peter Ludlow, a veteran commentator on EU affairs. "It is both intergovernmental and supranationalist."

The constitution offers something both to those seeking a closer union, and to those jealous of national sovereignty, but it seems unlikely to end the permanent and often acrimonious debate between the two sides.

Though the word "federal" was excised from the draft in the face of British complaints, changes in the EU's voting system that will make it harder for any one country to block a common initiative clearly expand the authority of EU institutions.

Since the European Parliament is the only one of those institutions to be directly elected, this worries skeptics like Jens-Peter Bonde, a Danish delegate to the convention. "Now we have a constitution like the Americans made in 1787," he says caustically. "But the one thing we missed out was democracy."

Others would have liked to see member states stripped even further of their ability to veto EU plans, fearing that the Union could be rendered impotent if it lies at the mercy of 25 individual governments.

Foreign policy, for example, remains one of the major areas where the EU can make policy only by consensus rather than by majority vote under the draft constitution. "If one country can stop everything in European foreign policy, Europe won't play a role any more in international affairs," worries Elmar Brock, head of the conservative bloc, the largest in the European Parliament. "It will be too weak."

Convention members and political analysts agree, however, that the draft constitution has one major merit: it clarifies in a single text the multiple and overlapping provisions of four different treaties that have left most European citizens confused about how the European Union actually works. "It is not an easy read, but it is readable," says Stefaan de Rynck, spokesman for Michel Barnier, one of the two European Commissioners at the convention.

Under the constitution, the European Council, made up of 25 heads of government, sets overall strategy for the Union, the European Commission drafts laws, and the Council and the European Parliament legislate between them.

The expanded 732-member parliament will have the power of veto or amendment over legislation in twice as many fields as it currently does, and for the first time the Council will legislate in public, rather than behind closed doors. The Council will have a permanent president, rather than the rotating six-month presidency that currently renders coherent policymaking difficult and deprives the Union of a single face to present to the rest of the world.

To prevent gridlock on the 25 member Council, some 50 new policy fields have been made subject to "qualified majority voting," ending the possibility of a single country casting a veto. And a complex system of "weighted" votes, depending on a country's economic size, will be replaced by an easier calculation: to pass the Council, a law will need a simple majority of members representing 60 percent of the Union's population.

Observers caution that the existence of a constitution will not itself be enough to change governments' behavior. The article stipulating that "member states shall actively and unreservedly support the Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity," for example, was lifted from an earlier treaty. But that did not prevent EU countries from differing over their attitudes to the war in Iraq.

And the current text itself is subject to revision by the Intergovernmental Conference that starts in October, where delegates will seek to clarify ambiguities and make the constitution operational. Giscard d'Estaing has warned governments not to try to revise too much, for fear of opening a Pandora's Box of objections.

"The deal was difficult," says Linda Mcavan, a British Labour Party delegate to the convention. "To unravel bits would endanger the delicate balance we reached, and I hope they don't unravel the whole thing. This is high stakes for the European Union. If it falls into paralysis for institutional reasons, it would be a disaster."

Intergovernmental conference members hope to finish negotiations by next spring and then send the document to countries for ratification. The target effective date is 2006.

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