Just a 'tidying-up exercise' or a drastic loss of sovereignty?

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The Independent Online

The European Union constitution divides political opinion like few other issues. To some it is merely a "tidying-up exercise"; to others it represents a dramatic loss of sovereignty to Brussels.

According to the draft constitution, the presidency of Europe would no longer be rotated among the member states. Instead, the president would be elected by heads of states of member countries for a term of two and a half years. Supporters feel this would create a central, agenda-setting figure, but smaller countries complain that presidency would be dominated by Europe's major powers.

A new European foreign minister would work alongside the president and would conduct, in the words of the constitution as currently drafted, "the Union's common foreign and security policy". The foreign minister would be selected by a vote of the heads of state.

The eventual aim is to have a common foreign policy. Member states "shall support the Union's common foreign and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity".

Several governments, especially Britain, are suspicious of this shift and have insisted on retaining a national veto over foreign policy and defence. But while opponents have attacked the constitution as a tool for those wishing to create a federal Europe, it does contain significant bulwarks against this. It enshrines the principle that the Union is "subsidiary" to member countries, able only to act in those areas where "the objectives of the intended action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states but can rather... be better achieved at Union level".

It is not proposed that Europe would set or harmonise taxes across the continent, despite calls for this from members of the commission and some countries. The European Commission, the EU's civil service but also the body responsible for proposing EU legislation, is also set for a shake up. Each country would have one commissioner (big countries currently have two) but only 15 of the 25 would have a vote. The voting commissioners would be rotated among the member states.

The constitution plans to give the European Parliament - currently under the presidency of Ireland's Pat Cox - a much more prominent role in the running of Europe.

The draft also incorporates a Charter of Fundamental Rights for EU citizens, covering everything from the right to life to the right to strike. This is a key for Britain, which does not want the European Court to be interpreting the charter and thereby extend its power.

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