One year after French and Dutch voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution in referendums, EU leaders have agreed to extend the “period of reflection,” setting the second half of 2008 as a deadline for deciding what to do about the bloc’s moribund document. The conclusion of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels earlier this month points to the need for Germany and France to play leading roles in resuscitating the treaty, which contains institutional reforms indispensable for enabling an enlarged EU to function efficiently.

Germany will hold the EU presidency in the first half of 2007, tasked with the job of drawing up a report that will serve as “the basis for future work on the constitutional process.” France will hold the presidency in the last half of 2008; it will have to prepare the final step in the process of EU member countries reaching a decision. Both countries’ tasks will carry substantial and symbolic importance because the EU, in 2007, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its origin as it enters a new stage. On March 25, 1957, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed the Treaties of Rome, which established the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community.

In May 2004, the EU grew from 15 to 25 states, as 10 newcomers joined, mostly former communist countries from Eastern Europe. In January 2007, Romania and Bulgaria are due to join the union, turning it into a 27-nation bloc. Slovenia, meanwhile, has been given the green light to join the euro zone at the beginning of next year, increasing the number of euro countries to 13.

The constitution represents an attempt to rationalize decision-making and operating procedures to cope with expanding union membership. Under the current rotating setup, a member country holds the EU presidency for six months. To serve in this capacity, a country must wield political influence as well as finesse to coordinate conflicting national interests. The task should be especially hard for smaller, newer EU members.

To overcome the difficulties of growth, the proposed constitution would create an EU president-chairman and an EU foreign minister, both with a 2 1/2-year term that could be renewed one time, plus a simplified voting system. It also calls for strengthening common foreign and security policies. The constitution can enter into force only if all member countries adopt it.

Although EU leaders signed the treaty, the ratification process for the treaty came to a halt when French and Dutch voters rejected it. In the French referendum, 70 percent of the eligible voters turned out, but nearly 55 percent of them rejected the treaty, whose drafting was overseen by former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. In the Netherlands, with a 63 percent turnout, more than 61 percent of the voters said “no.”

It was not the contents of the constitution, per se, that led to the “no” vote in either country. Rather, it was antipathy toward big bureaucracy — a feeling that EU elites were running the institutions and machinery that affect citizens’ daily lives. The inflation that followed the introduction of the euro, fear of massive immigration, increased competition due to globalization, and the belief that some countries might have to shoulder a bigger financial burden to run the EU did not help the cause of the constitution.

The rejection of the treaty by France and the Netherlands — two of the six original EEC founders — was not expected. After observing the referendum results in both countries, Britain shelved its own ratification process. Still, 15 member countries have ratified the document. Finland is expected to follow suit.

In the spring of 2007, the Netherlands will hold general elections, and France, a presidential election. No substantial progress is possible with regard to discussing the EU constitution until after these political events. It appears certain that EU member countries will come up with different and competing ideas on how to resuscitate the constitution. Some countries want it to resemble the original document rejected by the French and Dutch. Others propose picking out key sections on which everyone is most likely to agree and putting them to use. Still others propose a complete rewrite. In any case, member countries will have to agree on a ratification procedure.

The EU will have a difficult time forming a consensus on the final shape of the constitution. The process and results will dictate whether the EU will finally emerge as a powerful and influential bloc blessed with the ability to effectively cope with economic, social and political problems within itself and in the international community.

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