Way open for elected European president

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The Independent Online

European leaders yesterday paved the way for a written EU constitution and raised the prospect of a directly elected European Commission president, as they laid down the rules for a sweeping review of the way the union works.

A summit of EU leaders in Laeken, Brussels, agreed to set up a convention which will lead to a new governing treaty for the EU by 2004. It will be chaired by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the 75-year-old former president of France. He won despite reservations that his age made him the wrong person to conduct a debate over Europe's future.

The summit's declaration was a classic EU compromise which included enough language to convince both pragmatists, like Tony Blair, and federalists, like its Belgian authors, that they are winning the argument.

Mr Blair said the statement put in place a process which could make the EU a "super-power not a superstate" in which nations co-operated to increase their influence in the world without subsuming their own identity. A key section, proposed by Britain, said the public did not want to see a "European superstate, or European institutions inveigling their way into every nook and cranny of life" and said some powers could be returned to member states. But Mr Blair said there now would be a debate over Europe's direction.

Guy Verhofstadt, prime minister of Belgium, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, took a different line, arguing that the declaration broke new ground. These included the "necessity to have a European constitution" and the election of the European Commission president, either by the public or the European Parliament.

In the past Britain has opposed a written constitution, a long-standing goal of Euro-federalists. But the Government may soften its stance because of the way the document proposes to change the EU's structure by asking the question "what might the basic features of such as constitution be?". Under the plans the founding EU treaty could be split with a basic text spelling out rights and obligation while making clear which functions should be carried out at national and EU level. In some respects that would suit Eurosceptics better than the more vague commitment to "ever closer union" in previous treaties.

Other suggestions which will be considered by Mr d'Estaing's convention include enhancing the authority of the European Commission and increasing co-operation on social policy, the environment, health and food safety.

It also asks whether the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights should be included in an EU "basic treaty", thereby gaining legal force. Final decisions will be taken by EU leaders in 2004.

Agreement on the convention was reached yesterday morning after EU leaders failed to break the deadlock on Friday night. Mr d'Estaing, who had the support of France and Germany, won the backing of Spain and then Italy, which withdrew the candidature of its former premier, Guiliano Amato.

Although Wim Kok, the Dutch premier, enjoyed more general support, he did not push for the job because he will not stand down as prime minister for several months. By contrast Jacques Chirac, the French president, fought hard for Mr d'Estaing, a fellow centre-right politician who could help to influence the outcome of next year's French presidential elections.

In return for Italian backing for the French candidate, Mr Amato became a vice president of an influential group drawing together the work of the convention. Mr Blair was promised that David Miliband, the Labour MP and a former close aide who served on an earlier group of "wise men", would have a place too.