Europe began an unprecedented search for a new start yesterday with a warning that it faces an "yawning abyss of failure" unless it agrees on changes that pave the way to a constitution for the EU.
Valery Giscard d'Estaing, former president of France and chairman of the convention on the future of Europe, made a powerful plea for the EU to confront its failings and re-examine its basic aims and objectives.
The gathering of 105 national and European politicians from the 15 member states and applicant countries met for the first time in Brussels yesterday. It was, said Mr Giscard, the first time politicians had sat down to debate Europe's functions since the Messina conference in 1955, which paved the way for the Treaty of Rome which founded the European Community.
With Europe's decision-making machinery, designed for six countries, barely working for the current membership of 15, the prospect of a further 10 countries joining within two years, has prompted calls for a fundamental rethink.
The convention will run for a year and will make recommendations to heads of government who will take final decisions in 2004.
Mr Giscard made it clear he will push hard for agreement on a single report from the convention on the basis that this would "open the way towards a Constitution for Europe".
He also pointed out the scale of the task ahead.
During the 1990s enthusiasm for the EU weakened, he said, leading to a turnout below 50 per cent in the 1999 European elections. Mr Giscard said the "decision-making machinery has become more complex, to the point of being unintelligible to the general public".
Yesterday's opening session outlined the convention's parameters. The chairman said voters had to be asked whether they favour a "more uniform Europe – driven forward by a process of harmonisation" or one which would "keep its diversity, while respecting cultural and historical identities".
Four approaches will be studied: a compromise agreed at Nice in December 2000 which tinkers with the current model; a federal Europe favoured by Germany; the European Commission's idea of modernising the traditional "community method" in which it plays a leading role; and a looser alliance of nation states favoured by Britain and more sceptical nations.
In any event the convention is likely to state which powers should be exercised at European level, and which by member states. There will also be an effort to simplify the EU's governing treaty and convert it into a more comprehensible text. The workings of the convention have already provoked controversy. Only 16 of its members are female, and Mr Giscard thanked the countries who nominated women. Andnations applying to join the EU have no seat in a 12-strong steering groupor praesidium.
Yesterday there was ideological controversy too, as France's minister for Europe, Pierre Moscovici, called for a "United States of Europe", although one which "respects the nation state".
His words were played down by his British counterpart, Peter Hain, who argued that the debate was flowing in Britain's direction.
* Hundreds of millions of Europeans bid a final, but rarely a tearful, goodbye yesterday to nine remaining national currencies in the eurozone. In France, the Netherlands and Ireland the changeover was finalised weeks ago.