Controversial Verhofstadt plan highlights EU ‘identity crisis’

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Series Details Vol.7, No.45, 6.12.01, p2
Publication Date 06/12/2001
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Date: 06/12/01

By Martin Banks

A major report on the future of Europe will almost certainly have to be rewritten because some of its proposals are too controversial for member states.

European Voice has seen a copy of the document, The Future of the European Union, which is supposed to be the basis for the Laeken summit declaration.

It will lay the groundwork for the next intergovernmental conference on Europe's future in 2004.

The draft contains a series of controversial proposals that are thought to be unacceptable to several member states.

The idea of an EU constitution, enshrining the Charter of Fundamental Rights into EU law, is understood to have been rejected by the UK.

The French government, meanwhile, believes that the draft prejudices too many issues that should be debated further and decided by heads of government in 2004.

And Denmark has expressed reservations about moves towards a Belgian-style federal Europe.

The report also floats the idea of pan-European political parties and the direct election of the European Commission President. Other proposals include a new division of responsibilities between the EU and member states and an extension of qualified majority voting.

But it is the document's remarkably frank admission of the EU's failings which will attract the most attention ahead of next week's summit at the Belgian Royal Palace.

It warns that the Union is facing an identity crisis and must reinvent itself if it is to bridge the gulf that is opening between the people and the EU's institutions.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, drew up the report after consultations with a committee of 'wise men', including Jacques Delors, the federalist former President of the European Commission, and former prime ministers from Belgium and Italy. Verhofstadt, current president of the European Council, has been visiting European capitals to present the report to EU leaders.

Tomorrow (7 December), he is in Lisbon and Dublin and on Monday he visits Amsterdam and Stockholm. The tour des capitals concludes in Rome and Madrid on Tuesday.

But despite Verhofstadt's efforts to win over heads of state, there is growing demand for a rewrite.

One diplomatic source told European Voice: "No one wants a crisis at Laeken but several leaders have real problems with this report, not least because it is an implicit blueprint. We have to change it before Laeken."

A spokesman for Verhofstadt insisted the draft had been "favourably" received in London, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, Athens and Paris.

He said the premier accepted that parts of his report may have to be changed, adding: "It was never meant to be the final text. That is why we've been asking for an input from member states. Generally, the response has been positive and constructive and we expect their contributions will add to the report, not weaken it."

If sections of the report had to be rewritten there was no reason why this could not be done in time for Laeken, he said.

Meanwhile, Verhofstadt's spokesman dismissed criticism from a leading Belgian MEP who has claimed that her country's presidency had been a series of "missed opportunities".

Nelly Maes, vice-president of the Green/European Free Alliance group, said: "It has been very disappointing and I haven't been very impressed. We were led to believe the Belgian agenda would move the Union much more closer towards a true democracy but this just has not happened.

"Instead, we have seen the so-called 'big three' - Britain, France and Germany - return to the bad old days with their cosy get-togethers, which have done nothing but harm to the European ideal.

"Verhofstadt has spent much of the six months since June travelling the world, meeting heads of state and appearing very statesmanlike rather than doing what he should have been which is promoting the work of the EU."

The spokesman for Verhofstadt said: "We've had a very busy agenda, particularly after the events of 11 September. Of course, we are not above criticism but I think the criticism is unfair. The six months have been very productive."

He cited the EU arrest warrant, expected to be adopted at Laeken, as one of the Belgian presidency's successes.

"People said this would never come about but it is almost certain to come into effect by the end of the year," he added.

Preview of the European Council, Laeken, 14-15 December 2001.

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