Europe Constitution: what it's all about

In the first of a two-part series, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the origins of the controversial European Constitution and provides an idiot's guide to its contents.

In the first of a two-part series, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the origins of the controversial European Constitution and provides an idiot's guide to its contents.

"OUR constitution . . . is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the greatest number."

AND so quoting Athenian historian Thucydides, the authors of the proposed European "constitutional treaty" have presented the draft which, if ratified, will apply across all 25 nations of the European Union.

Heads of government are expected to accept the document when they meet in Thessolonika in Greece on June 20. The prime ministers and presidents will then ask either their parliaments or their people through a referendum to approve it.

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Tony Blair is under intense pressure to hold a referendum. The Conservatives, who have launched a nationwide petition calling for a plebiscite, have been joined by the Liberal Democrats, who while backing the constitution, believe it needs democratic legitimacy by being approved through a nationwide vote of all electors.

However, the Government does not accept that the constitution either fundamentally changes the UK's relations with the rest of Europe or affects the rights and freedoms of the British people.

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So what's all the fuss about? It was the European Council meeting in Laeken on December 15 2001 which saw the starting point for the constitution.

The heads of government adopted a "declaration on the future of the European Union," with the aim of making it more democratic, more transparent and more effective.

They put in place a convention under the chairmanship of former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to draft a constitution which would replace the Treaties of Rome, Maastrict and Nice, and embody the Single European Act - which established the single market - and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

For 15 months, representatives of the then 15 EU nations, the 13 candidate countries, national parliaments, the European Commission plus observers met to draft the constitution.

The result is 200 pages of text. Its architects accept the constitution is not very simple or easy to understand but they claim the document is far more simple and understandable than the existing treaties which are a complete mess.

The key points of the Constitution are:

Any member state may decide to withdraw from the European Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements. The constitution will then cease to apply within that state.

European laws will be enacted, replacing the current directives and regulations.

The European Council will have a "stable" or fixed President, replacing the current practice of rotating presidencies.

Europe will have a Minister for Foreign Affairs, merging the functions of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the Council and the Commissioner for External Relations.

Enhanced co-operation among states who wish to develop a common defence policy.

Abolition of the unanimity rule in Council decision making and replaced with qualified majority voting.

The Council of Ministers will have to meet in public to discuss and adopt laws.

National parliaments will have the right to intervene in Europe's legislative process.

Europe will assume responsibility - competence in the language of continental Europe - for sport, to promote fairness of competitions and the protection of moral and physical integrity of sportsmen and women.

Europe will take responsibility for some aspects of justice and home affairs, including cross-border police and legal co-operation. A European Public Prosecutor's Office will be established to prosecute "and bring to judgment the perpetrators of and accomplices in serious crimes affecting more than one member state." These crimes are defined as terrorism, trafficking in human beings and sexual exploitation of women and children, illicit drug and/or arms trafficking, money laundering, corruption, counterfeiting, computer crime and organised crime.

A common policy on asylum and immigration from nationals of non-EU countries, including, visas, short-stay residence permits, freedom of travel, and the abolition "of any controls on persons, whatever their nationality, when crossing internal borders."

A Young Europeans Voluntary Corps will be established for humanitarian aid.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights will be legally protected, by being incorporated within the Constitution.

A million or more residents of Europe will have the right to institute a citizens' initiative, which is a demand for EU institutions to start the process of new legislation.

If the constitution is not ratified by all states, the existing treaties will remain in force. If it is unanimously approved, it will come into effect in 2009 at the latest and possibly by 2006.

European Constitution: text in English

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