The Convention: approaching the endgame

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The Convention: approaching the endgame

With the Convention approaching its final stages, one of its leading members, Andrew Duff MEP, in an interview with Giovanni Grevi, argues that a consensus outcome is probable but it may exclude some important political figures.

The Convention on The Future of Europe is now entering its final phase. In this interview Giovanni Grevi questions Andrew Duff, a leading Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the Liberal Caucus in the Convention, about the prospects for an agreement which could shape the future of the EU for years to come.

Giovanni Grevi: The Convention is unique in that it involves various constituencies from EU institutions and Member States, openly debating the future of Europe. Are some groups in the Convention proving more effective than others in shaping the agenda and the eventual outcome?

Andrew Duff: It is difficult to say, as much more informal consultation is going on behind the scenes and, as the work of the Convention unfolds, there is probably no single group of representatives that can claim overarching influence. Individual mandates and backgrounds do seem more relevant when it comes to defining positions on key issues. For example, members from candidate countries have not been working as a group, and have not achieved results on their own. The same is true for political caucuses. In the Liberal Democratic caucus we are not trying to forge a single policy line: we respect the varying priorities of individual members. On a personal level, when I take the floor in the Convention, I speak for the ELDR caucus, but everybody has different allegiances. This would indeed be a good question to put to all Convention members: responses would show a high degree of autonomy.

Giovanni Grevi: When the Convention began its work, concerns were expressed about how independent the debate within the Convention would be from external pressures, notably from Member State governments. What is your assessment of the current situation?

Andre Duff: The Convention has now clearly asserted its autonomy from the external environment, and works with a distinctive sense of purpose shared by the vast majority of its members. In fact, the discussion is very wide-ranging and driven by what seems most relevant for the future functioning of the Union. There has been little regard for the original mandate that played a more incisive role in planning the early stages of our work. Nobody reads the Laeken Declaration any longer. In this sense, the inspired advice of Guy Verhofstadt to debate with no taboos is being taken seriously.

Giovanni Grevi: Now that the sensitive institutional issues are being addressed, considerable disagreement has emerged between its members, and more open confrontation seems to be looming. What are the implications for the final stage of the debate, and for the end result?

Andrew Duff: I am not surprised to see some disagreement emerge in the Convention. We have always been aware that there would be discordant phases in our work. After all, that was the case at the very beginning too, when we were discussing the way we would structure the debate. On the other hand the breadth of the consensus already achieved is impressive. Many members of the Convention are prepared as of now to sign up to an agreement on a wide range of key issues. This was the case, for example, in the contribution that I submitted in January. This drew attention to 25 points of reform which had received the support of the 36 members and substitutes who signed it. (487/1/3 Link). Other similar attempts to harvest the growing consensus on key aspects of reform are underway. All will contribute to shaping a considerable body of acquis in the Convention.

Giovanni Grevi: In this context, what is your assessment of the role that the Praesidium is playing in enhancing consensus in the Convention?

Andrew Duff: The Praesidium is still to be put to a real test from this point of view. During the debate in the different Working Groups, some members of the Praesidium were clearly more successful than others in building consensus around constructive recommendations. What is now required is a collective effort on their part at the critical stage when the articles of the new Constitution are drafted. In fact, looking at the huge task and responsibility ahead, one may wonder whether the Praesidium, once feared as too powerful, will not prove too weak to weave the various strands of debate towards coherent and fully-fledged recommendations.

Giovanni Grevi: This phase of the Convention’s work will be crucial, as solutions to very delicate matters will have to be found in a short space of time, before the June deadline. Surely the problem is one of timing as well as of suitable working methods?

Andrew Duff: Some adaptation of working methods will no doubt be required if the deadline that we fixed for the conclusion of the Convention’s proceedings is to be met. In this perspective, it is likely that informal working groups will be set up, including members of the Convention with a particular interest or specific expertise in the subjects of debate, with a view to assisting the Secretariat in drafting new provisions.

Giovanni Grevi: Looking at the output of the Convention and at the procedure to achieve a final, unitary text, the proposal to put issues to a vote has been ruled out in favour of seeking a consensus. But the notion of consensus is itself elusive, and means different things to different people. What are the chances of achieving consensus? And how will consensus be measured?

Andrew Duff: At the end of our work, it will be up to each of us to look at the overall text of recommendations and strike a balance between the pros and cons. Surely none of us will feel completely comfortable with the text. But I am confident that most of us will be able to recognize ourselves in it. I would be surprised if consensus was defined as meaning the support of less than 90% of the members of the Convention, and disappointed anyway if it was anywhere below 95%. Everybody knows that the Convention process will achieve much more than any Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) would. We will surely recommend that the subsequent IGC adopt the final text of the Convention as it is. Moreover most of us will fight for it in national ratification campaigns.

Giovanni Grevi: A large consensus is one thing, but who is included or excluded from it is quite a different matter. Do you think that the rejection by one or two Member State governments of majority recommendations would prevent consensus?

Andrew Duff: Now you may ask me whether some important people have not already decided that they will not accept the outcome of the Convention. That might be the case, and there is not much we can do for them. For one or two members, however, including notably Peter Hain, the representative of Tony Blair, the choice will be of historic relevance. For most members, it will be far less dramatic, as a considerable majority is in favour of furthering European integration. Surely a rejection of the final text by one or two Member States would represent a serious political problem for the Praesidium, but I do not think that the Convention would be intimidated by such opposition, even from a large country like the UK.

Giovanni Grevi: What about the final document which will emerge as a result of such a consensus? If it is widely accepted that the text should be of a constitutional nature and include fully-fledged recommendations, would it also include the detailed policy provisions included in ‘Part 2’ of the constitutional draft presented by the Praesidium?

Andrew Duff: That is what we should be aiming for, but I am not sure we will make it b y June. If that is not achievable, then the Convention should submit to the European Council in Thessalonica the bulk of the new Constitution and stop for the summer break, reconvene in September and supervise the work carried out by legal experts in the meantime to adapt specific policy provisions to the new recommendations. Also, the Convention could continue in a sort of ‘still mode’ and we could be called on by President Giscard to support him in the event that the IGC does not respect the recommendations enshrined in the new constitutional text.

Giovanni Grevi: Are you saying that President Giscard d’Estaing will play a formal role in the IGC negotiations?

Andrew Duff: He is surely planning to do so, do not worry! Given this, he would be wise not to neglect the considerable power base that the Convention could provide in case of deviation from the established constitutional patterns.

Giovanni Grevi is Associate Director of Studies with The European Policy Centre. Andrew Duff MEP is Chair of the Liberal Caucus in the Convention on the Future of Europe.

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