9th Apr 2020

Historic EU constitution approved

  • END OF CONVENTION - armies of waiters marched in with champagne and Beethoven's Ode to Joy was piped through the air (Photo: EUobserver)

Europeans from 28 countries toasted the first ever constitution for Europe after 16 months of hard bartering.

Despite the inauspicious date, Friday 13th, the 105-member Convention on Europe's Future was able - with a palpable sense of relief - to give the nod to the treaty blueprint containing well over 400 articles.

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Convention president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, whose autocratic style kept the whole constitutional train from derailing on several occasions, characterised the process as a "mixture of hope and fear sprinkled over with a little dream powder".

Summing up the final meeting, he spoke of standing on the threshold and invited Europeans to "decide together to go into a new Europe".

The eleventh hour

Although Convention delegates had been fighting tooth and nail among themselves up until the eleventh hour, they pulled together on Friday and, to a delegate, spoke of the historic occasion.

Dominique de Villepin, French foreign minister, spoke of the solemnity of the moment. "None of the member states could have achieved this themselves", he stated in reference to the national and European parliaments who also worked on the blueprint.

German foreign minister Joschka Fischer said it was "worthy of the word historic".

For the ten Central and Eastern European countries who were also represented it was more than just a treaty - it also showed how much the Continent has changed in the last decade.

Alojz Peterle, former Slovenian prime minister, spoke of a new European experience "beyond the divides of the Iron Curtain of the past".

Shaky foundations

But there was also a rueful realisation that nobody could be really happy with the results.

For the federalists, there was regret that member states' veto in foreign policy will be kept and that it will be difficult to make treaty changes in the future.

Elmar Brok, German Christian Democrat MEP and a federalist, said "not all our dreams have come true" while the eurosceptic Jens Peter Bonde said "welcome in the club but let's improve it".

There were also several calls for the intergovernmental conference, IGC, that will start fine-tuning the draft in September not to unravel the strands of the constitution.

What the treaty is about

Should the treaty be agreed by all governments at the IGC, it will be a substantial shift of power in the direction of the Union.

The areas where unanimity are required have been vastly reduced - the main bastions of member state vetoes remain in foreign policy and tax issues.

One of the big winners is the European parliament where co-legislation with the member states has become the rule.

The treaty established that the Union has a single legal personality and makes explicit the court rulings that EU law has primacy over national law.

The legal instruments have been vastly reduced in number (from over 12 to 5) as well as simplified. Regulations and directives have been replaced by laws and framework laws.

National parliaments will, for the first time, be able to give their opinion on the creation of EU law.

There will be a foreign minister to conduct the EU's common foreign and security policy and a permanent president of the European Council of member states to give political direction to the Union.

The number of commissioners will be reduced to 15 from 2009 - but each remaining member state not represented will be entitled to have a commission delegate who will have no voting rights.

From 2009, a qualified majority will mean a majority of the member states representing 3/5 of the population.

There can be up to 736 seats in the parliament.

A possibility to make changes to the treaty by qualified majority has been introduced - so long as member states agree unanimously first.

If more than one million European citizens sign a petition, they can ask the commission to make a proposal on the issue - so long as it is relevant to the Constitution.

Champage, Beethoven and tying up the ends

Mr Giscard, as the master of ceremony, ensured that the occasion hit the right note - as he wound up his final speech, armies of waiters marched in with champagne and Beethoven's Ode to Joy was piped through the air.

Despite the apparent finality of the occasion, the whole convention will convene once again in July to agree the policies part of the treaty.

Next week, on 20 June, Mr Giscard will have a ceremonial handing over of the Treaty at a meeting of heads of state and government for the Thessaloniki Summit.

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