Auteur: | By Lisbeth Kirk
EUOBSERVER / ROME - EU leaders from the 25 member states will arrive in Rome today for the formal signing of the new European Constitution - officially starting the two-year ratification period.
Symbolically, the ceremony will take place in the same room as the signing of the original Treaty of Rome by the then six member states - France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg - in 1957.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi fought a hard battle to get the document signed in Rome - although Italy failed to get the document agreed under its EU Presidency in the second half of last year.
It was eventually agreed under the Irish EU Presidency in June.
A mammoth document
The Constitution runs to some 300 pages and contains over 400 articles. It will replace, once adopted, most of the existing EU treaties.
The first part defines the European Union and its values and institutions. The second part incorporates the Charter on fundamental rights. The third part describes the policy and actions of the European Union and the last part contains the final clauses, including the procedures for approval and a possible revision of the Constitution.
It introduces some big changes. The EU will get a permanent chair of the European Council to drive the EU forward, and a new EU foreign minister.
The new voting system will be based on a double majority of both member states and population.
The number of Commissioners will be reduced to two thirds of the number of member states from 2014.
The European Parliament's powers have been greatly strengthened so that the areas where it can co-legislate with member states have almost doubled.
And, for the first time, there is an exit clause so that a member state can leave the Union if it wants and a solidarity clause committing member states to help when another in the bloc is under terrorist attack.
From Laeken to Rome
The Constitution project was born among EU leaders at the Laeken summit in December 2001.
Acknowledging that previous procedures which resulted in long arduous summits with negotiations into the early morning was no longer appropriate, they decided instead to call a Convention to draft a new Constitution.
The Convention was tasked to bring the EU to its citizens and make the European Union work with 28 or more states - chaired by former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, it met for the first time in February 2002.
Over 16 months, with clever political manoeuvres and by disciplined use of the so-called consensus method, the elderly politician managed to draft most of the text, which is to be signed today.
In July 2003, Mr Giscard took the text from its birthplace in Brussels and brought it to Rome for a symbolic hand-over to the Italian Presidency.
An Intergovernmental Conference was then launched in October last year and by June this year, leaders managed to agree a text.
Pan European campaigns
However, the final - and perhaps most difficult part - still remains: ratification.
The text cannot come into place until all 25 member states have ratified it by referendum or via their national parliaments.
So far, 11 member states have committed themselves to holding a referendum - with Spain set to be the first in February next year.
The debates - both for and against the Constitution - are likely to be pan-European for a change. Earlier referenda on EU treaties, fought in Denmark, Ireland and elsewhere, were mainly national events.
On a different front, a battle is also heating up - on Christianity.
Several centre-right politicians are agitating for a reference to Europe's Christian heritage to be made in the national statutes ratifying the Constitution.
In the case of a no-vote?
What happens if one country votes no to the European Constitution - the answer is political.
There is much speculation over whether a no vote in a small country would be allowed to sink the whole ship.
However, a no vote in a larger country or in several countries would be difficult to overcome and could send politicians back to the drawing board.
In any case, Europe is entering a new two-year phase today of national ratification - the Constitution will enter into force on 1 November 2006, provided it has been ratified in all 25 member states.
If this is not the case, a declaration attached to the treaty says that "the matter will be referred to the European Council".