Tussle over God threatens to delay EU constitution

Stephen Castle
Friday 28 February 2003 01:00
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Europe's new constitution should highlight the continent's religious heritage and traditions, Valéry Giscard d'Estaingsaid yesterday as he sought to head off calls for an explicit reference to Christianity or God.

The former French president, who is chairing a convention on the future of Europe, also defended the use of the word "federal" in a draft text despite the opposition of the British government, which says the term has integrationist overtones.

While he admitted that divisions in the EU about Iraq cast a shadow over his work, M. Giscard promised extra sessions of the convention next month to meet the convention's June completion deadline.

The convention is comprised of 105 politicians drawn from 28 member states and applicant countries. They are trying to draw up a constitution to clarify the powers of an expanded EU and prevent its decision-making machinery from seizing up. Members of the convention have tabled 1087 amendments to drafts of the first 16 articles – many demanding a reference to God or religion. The objections are threatening to swamp M. Giscard's work and delay the outcome beyond the summer deadline.

M. Giscard sought to defuse pressure for a reference to God or Christianity in article two of the planned constitution, which deals with the EU's values. He said that he would propose "a reference to religious traditions and heritage".

Pressure for something more specific has come from several quarters including Christian Democrat parties and the Italian and Polish governments, but is opposed by many others.

Yesterday Gianfranco Fini, Italy's deputy Prime Minister, proposed that the EU be described as a "community that shares a Judeo-Christian heritage as its fundamental values". He added: We must make more explicit the roots of European identity, which we see as part of the value of the Christian religion."

But Linda McAvan, a British Labour MEP, argued that a specific reference to Christianity "would offend those many millions of people of different faiths or no faith at all".

She was backed by Louis Michel, the Belgian Foreign Minister,who said the EU should be inclusive. "Europe is not mono-religious," he said.

Jean-Luc Dehaene, vice-president of the convention and a former Belgium prime minster, said the reference would have to be general and "pluralist", like that of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights which states that "the Union shall respect cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity".

Although the Vatican, the Greek Orthodox Church and Protestant Churches have lobbied for a reference they are more concerned to enshrine protection for their religion-based charitable organisations.

Meanwhile the convention hearing showed little consensus over the use of the term "federal". The so-called "f word", provoked a fierce complaint earlier this month from Peter Hain, the cabinet minister who sits on the convention. The draft text speaks of the EU administering "certain common competences on a federal basis".

Yesterday Mr Hain was absent and Baroness Scotland of Asthal, who deputised, lowered the temperature, describing it as a "politically-charged word". She said she sought a "better formula". M. Giscard said that the phrase simply points out the current situation where some powers, such as economic control over the euro, are exercised in a federal way.

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