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EU constitution: What's at stake?


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LONDON, England -- A number of EU states say they plan to hold public votes if, as planned, a new constitution is signed and sealed at a heads of government summit in June. Here is an overview of the issues at stake:

Why is a new constitution needed?

The European Union has been operating under rules that were originally designed for six members. But when 10 mainly former communist East European countries join the current 15 members on May 1 the EU will not be able to function effectively under its old system. So the new constitution, which needs to be ratified by all members, is designed to streamline the rules.

What are the main points?

  • Permanent EU president to replace six-month rotating presidency by each member state
  • EU foreign minister to conduct common foreign policy
  • Mutual defense clause obliges other EU nations to come to the aid if another nation is attacked
  • Qualified majority voting to apply in most areas and vetoes to be limited to a few areas
  • A "double majority" system will require the votes of a majority of the 25 members states representing at least 60 per cent of the EU's population
  • Commission to be reduced to 15 full members and 10 non-voting associates
  • Policy areas covered by European Parliament to increase from 34 to 70
  • EU public prosecutor to investigate cross-border fraud
  • Introduction of tax harmonization
  • Legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights
  • Membership exit clause to allow member states to leave EU
  • What are the sticking points?

  • The 2000 Nice Treaty had given Spain and Poland 27 votes each compared with 29 for Germany, whose population is more than the two countries' combined. Talks collapsed at a summit last December after the draft constitution boosted the heavyweight countries' voting powers at the expense of smaller nations. However, changes of government in Spain and Poland this year have helped revive negotiations.
  • Smaller countries are also unhappy over the composition of the European Commission. They want one full member per country but France and Germany say a commission of 25 or more members with full voting powers would be unmanageable.
  • Smaller member states are also concerned by the prospect of an EU president, which they say would favor the larger countries. One compromise suggested is to have a "team presidency" by which a group of three countries would chair different ministries for six months each, thereby preserving an element of the rotating presidency. However, the elected president would be in overall control.
  • Catholic countries want a specific reference to Christianity in the constitution. However, this is problematic for countries with large ethnic minorities and to Muslim Turkey, which hopes to one day join the bloc.
  • What happens next?

  • To enter into force, the new constitution must be ratified by all 25 member states of the new enlarged European Union that comes into being on May 1.
  • The United Kingdom, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland will hold ballots and others, including the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain, are almost certain to do so.
  • If any one of the 25 EU members does not ratify the constitution, there could either be a new vote or the treaty would need renegotiating.

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