Brussels debates the job that will shape its future

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The European Commission raised the stakes over the leadership of a new high-powered committee on the future of Europe, amid a deadlock over the choice of the group's president.

Unveiling a blueprint for the future of Europe, a statement from the commission said that the creation of the committee, which will play an important role in shaping constitutional changes, would be "a major leap forward in the democratic process", and said that "failure is not an option".

Although EU heads of government are expected to make the decision over the presidency next week at their summit in Laeken, near Brussels, there is still no consensus on who should get the job.

The front-runner is the former French president Giscard d'Estaing, although several countries including Britain would prefer the Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok. Other possibilities include Jacques Delors, France's former European Commission president, Giuliano Amato, an ex-prime minister of Italy, and the ex-Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.

Germany will play a crucial role in the choice, particularly if Paris pushes hard for Mr d'Estaing. The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, has already indicated he would back a French candidate. But others see both potential French contenders as too old-school to deliver new ideas on the way forward for Europe.

Michel Barnier, the European Commissioner responsible for constitutional change, said that the president of the group must be "someone who has the ear of the European Council", the decision-making body of EU governments.

Whoever the successful candidate is will play a vital role in shaping the EU's most important constitutional settlement for many years.

Yesterday's blueprint outlines how Europe will prepare for its next big treaty change in 2004. The new group will be made up of representatives of governments, national parliaments, MEPs and the European Commission, and will include delegates from east ern European countries that are membership candidates.

The committee will begin its work in the spring and will report a year later with options for member states to consider. After a brief interlude, EU governments will convene a treaty-changing conference. That ought to conclude its work in the spring of 2004, before campaigning for the European Parliament elections in June.

Last year, the heads of government agreed only on minimal changes in Nice. Yesterday, Romano Prodi, the European Commission's president, called for the national veto to be scrapped in certain areas to help the European Union enlarge from its current membership of 15 to as many as 27.

Mr Prodi argued that without more majority voting "a 27-member union will simply not be able to function".

The Nice treaty suggested four points to be addressed: the role of national parliaments, a new "simplification" of the EU's treaties, the status of Europe's charter of fundamental rights, and a clearer delineation of powers exercised by national governments and by the EU.

Almost all the EU leaders agree on the need for greater clarity in Europe's structures. That will be helped by defining the powers to be exercised at an EU and a national level. The commission suggests dividing the treaty in two. The first element would be a "basic text" that would probably incorporate the charter of fundamental rights; the second would include other provisions, and would be easier to amend.

There is growing support for the idea of MEPs electing the president of the European Commission, seen by many as part of the answer to Europe's distance from its citizens. Yesterday's report said: "The future European Union will not be built without the support of its citizens or the commitment of national and European politicians who need to explain the added value of Europe."