Europe's leaders hail completion of first constitution

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The European Union's first constitution was finally published yesterday. Almost 16 months of work on revamping Europe's creaking structures concluded with champagne and a rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy".

The former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who has previously compared his work to Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers of the US constitution, declared that history had been made. His draft, he said, had "virtually unanimous" backing from the 105 members of a convention made up of politicians from the EU's 28 present and applicant states, MEPs and members of the European Commission.

M. Giscard's plans, which must be approved in full by EU governments, propose a wide-ranging shake-up of the Union's sclerotic decision-making structures to allow for enlargement. Ten new countries, mainly ex-Communist, will join next year. Among the proposals are the creation of a new president of the European Council, where heads of government meet, and an EU foreign minister designed to give Europe a more powerful voice on the international stage. Other innovations include slimming down the European Commission and giving the EU the right to sign treaties and sit on international bodies.

National government representatives on the convention succumbed to the mood of euphoria yesterday. The Spanish Foreign Minister, Ana Palacio, hailed the document as "a legal revolution, with no precedent", while her German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, said it was "worthy of the word historic". The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, said the draft would make Europe a key player on the world stage. Britain's government representative, Peter Hain, described it as "a foundation for a modern, more democratic Europe, better anchored to its nation states and more accountable to its citizens".

M. Giscard, 77, will present the findings to a summit of EU leaders in Greece next week. They have the final say, although M. Giscard appealed to them to "stick to our text which has been discussed and reflected on at great length".

The credibility of M. Giscard's blueprint was boosted by widespread support for the document from a convention more renowned for fractiousness than harmony. Of the 105 convention members, just eight Eurosceptics, including the Conservative MP David Heathcoat-Amory, dissociated themselves from M. Giscard's conclusions, issuing their own "alternative report".

The glowing tributes yesterday disguised a series of objections from national capitals determined to pick apart elements of the document when they begin detailed negotiation on the text in the autumn.

Britain has all but dropped its objections to the inclusion of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees minimum social standards, after securing the insertion of a new clause which could bolster the primacy of EU law. But it is worried about the fine print of the plan for an EU foreign minister, which would combine the posts currently held by Chris Patten, EU commissioner for foreign affairs, and Javier Solana, the EU's high representative.

London is concerned that the plan will site the job in the Commission, and wants to ensure that the new holder is accountable to national governments.

Britain, backed by Ireland, Denmark and Sweden, opposes plans to scrap the national veto in two very limited areas of taxation policy, some aspects of cross-border social security legislation and measures to harmonise criminal law. The UK also has support for its hostility to a clause known as the "passerelle", under which EU leaders could decide, at any time, to axe national vetoes so long as all of them agree. "We want this to be a long-term settlement, not permanent revolution," said a British official.

Other objections include the new EU ambition of framing a defence policy and of creating a European public prosecutor.

Finally, the UK and several other nations are unhappy at the idea of creating a "single legislative council", which would take over the law-making functions of all the committees on which ministers from national governments sit.