By DONNA URSCHEL
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former president of France, said in a major Library address that the European Union faces challenges in drafting a new European constitution similar to those faced by the Founding Fathers in creating the U.S. Constitution some 215 years ago.
"What is our aim? We need a constitution that makes decision-making simpler," said Giscard d'Estaing, president of the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body in charge of drafting a new constitution. "We have much to learn from the clear prose of the Philadelphia pens."
Giscard d'Estaing gave the second annual Henry Alfred Kissinger Lecture at the Library on Feb. 11. He stayed on course with his topic, "The Preparation of the European Constitution," and did not comment on the current high tensions between the United States and France over war with Iraq. When a question from the audience asked how war with Iraq would change the European Union, Giscard d'Estaing was diplomatically vague: "We don't know. There will be an effect. It would be dishonest to deny it. The effect will be complex." But he offered no further details.
Kissinger and his wife, Nancy, attended the lecture, which drew a capacity crowd in the Coolidge Auditorium. In October 2001, Kissinger himself delivered the inaugural lecture to mark the establishment at the Library of the Henry Alfred Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations in the Kluge Center. The program, endowed by friends of Kissinger, includes an annual lecture by a foreign policy expert and the annual appointment of a senior research scholar to use the Library's international collections.
Giscard d'Estaing, who stands tall and regal at age 77, warmly greeted his old friend in the front row of the audience. "I am pleased this lecture is placed under the name of my great friend Dr. Henry Kissinger–for a simple reason. Henry Kissinger is the best diplomat of our time, without a doubt. I've met most of them. I will offend all of them, but one."
In drafting a new European constitution, Giscard d'Estaing said he finds inspiration in the actions of America's Founding Fathers. "People, states, continents face at certain times in their history crucial decisions. They stand at crossroads. When they rise to the challenge, they make history.
"At the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, the United States faced such a demanding moment in history," he said. The country was economically weak, internally divided, with a population of 3.5 million, including 500,000 slaves, and it was still exposed to external threats. He added, "The success of this convention was by no means guaranteed."
Similarly, the European Union stands at a crossroads. The 15-member EU will soon admit 10 more nations, the most important expansion in its 50-year history, he explained. With this new, larger Europe, a better plan is needed to represent the vastly diverse nations and to forge a common foreign policy.
Giscard d'Estaing said it is important for the new European Constitution to define the role EU wishes to play on the international scene. He foresees a stronger, more united Europe, which he thinks would be a better partner for the United States, because it would provide organized and qualitative debate on global strategy issues.
Another challenge, he said, is to improve the EU's decision-making process, which has become too complex and obscure. "We will have to be able in coming years to make rapid decisions on a broad range of issues. The process of their joint decision-making has to be simpler and better understood."
When it comes to 18th-century vs. 21st-century constitution-building, Giscard d'Estaing said, "In some ways, our task is trickier, because we are a Europe of many nations with strikingly disparate dimensions and living standards."
The six biggest member states–Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and Poland–will account for 74 percent of the European population and 85 percent of the wealth, which means, in democratic terms, a large majority. "There is a broad dispersion of the population and wealth of the 25 different states. And it's not easy to find the right balance between their major demands," he said. To meet these challenges, the three branches of the European Union–the Council of Ministers, the Parliament, and the European Commission–must be improved.
A big question for the Convention on the Future of Europe is whether the European Union will be a strong federation or a looser confederation of states. "I don't think we'll finally settle it for Europe in our present convention," he said, adding later, "Our union is, for a long time to come, a mixed system." Giscard d'Estaing said it took Americans many years, including a Civil War, to iron out all their differences.
"The future constitution will be submitted to each member state for ratification, as it was here in 1787. No it is not easy, but I am confident that we can succeed," he said.
After the lecture, Giscard d'Estaing responded strongly to a question from the audience concerning the need for a single president of the European Union. "The people who say you need to have a single president are killing the system. It is impossible at the moment for a single person to give orders to all the states. It is much better to have a balance between interests of the states–expressed by the council–and interests of the union–expressed by the commission," he said, referring to a two-president system.
Another question that drew a sharp reaction: "Do you see Turkey as a member of the European Union in the next five to 10 years?" Giscard d'Estaing's response: "I will answer frankly, which is rare. No. I do not want to attack or undervalue or insult Turkey; it's a great country with great people. But are they Europeans? No," he said.
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer.