Make or Break for Europe's Constitution

The challenge for the EU now is to refocus itself on the priorities of today and tomorrow. It needs to connect better with its own citizens, to renew their support by showing that Europeans working together can foster growth and jobs, fight international crime, and secure a clean environment. The Union needs to play a more active role in the wider world, not in pursuit of selfish interests, but in promoting the universal values on which it is founded.

Most of all, the enlarged Union needs a constitutional and institutional framework that fits its ambitions. For thirty months, governments and parliamentarians have been working on a new constitution for Europe. An exceptional draft was prepared by the convention chaired by former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. It is the task of national governments - of me and my colleagues in the European Council - to finish the job. We meet in Brussels this week, and our overriding priority is to reach agreement on the constitution.

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Consensus on most of the draft has existed for some time. There is no dispute about the EU's values and objectives, about inclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, or about simplifying legislative processes. These are all major advances. But national governments inevitably have a particular interest in the powers of EU institutions in such key areas as foreign policy, criminal law, and taxation.

These are the issues on which final agreement now needs to be reached. Through months of bilateral contact and negotiation among ministers, we have succeeded in whittling down the outstanding issues to a point where a fair and balanced overall package is achievable.

As in any negotiation, the key ingredients are timing and political will. People simply weren't ready last December when a first attempt was made to finalize agreement. The European Council's decision in March to finish the negotiations during the Irish presidency sent a powerful signal of our determination to break the stalemate. In the last month, I have met all of my colleagues face to face, in their capitals. We speak often. I detect no slackening of resolve. In fact, there is a sense that we cannot afford to fail. In a challenging period for the Union, it needs to show that, when the chips are down, its members can make collective but difficult decisions in the common interest.

The basic institutional balances between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament are not in question. But the EU's institutions need to be modernized. Greater continuity and focus will be provided through the creation of a full-time chairman of the European Council and an EU Foreign Minister, and there is to be a three-country team presidency of other Council formations.

There is also now an acceptance that the voting system within the European Council should be based on a double majority of population and member states. This is logical, transparent, and representative. But the precise arrangements for double majority voting need to be calibrated in a way that respects the particular concerns of all member states, while still ensuring that the new system is more efficient than its predecessor. I believe that we can settle this most difficult question in an equitable way.

The task of the Commission is to drive forward the EU's agenda in the common interest. There is a developing consensus that 'representativeness' and legitimacy can be achieved by including nationals of all member states in the next two Commissions, with a move thereafter to a fixed smaller number based on strictly equal rotation.

There is also a need to ensure that the citizens of all member states, big and small, are adequately and appropriately represented in the European Parliament. The constitution envisages further expanding the parliament's important functions, both legislative and budgetary, in partnership with the member states. In fact, for the first time, a significant watchdog role is being assigned to national parliaments.

These arrangements will preserve the EU's unique institutional essence - the balances between its institutions and among member states - while offering the prospect of greater effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency.

The constitution will see a further major advance in the use of majority voting, which is necessary in an EU of 25 (and soon more) members. But a few topics will have to remain subject to unanimous decision, given their special nature. I believe we are close to a balanced agreement on this.

Too often, the complex issues involved in this kind of negotiation are presented as a battle between one country and another, or between competing ideologies. From my own long experience of negotiation, I know that talk of winners and losers is not just unhelpful, but misleading. Everyone must compromise, but they must also see their own hopes and concerns reflected in a final text.

If we succeed this week, it will be a triumph for the EU. Europe is a confluence of different traditions and histories, of independent sovereign states. But we are united in our belief that sharing sovereignty and working together is the best - indeed, the only - way forward. Adopting a constitution means consolidating the end of the bitter divisions of the past, and a chance to build a Union that works for our 450 million people.