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The recent article by the FT's Peter Norman, author of "The Accidental Constitution", on the EU's constitutional treaty has attracted a big and varied response. Here he gives his answers to readers' questions. Send further questions to ask@ft.com

The constitutional treaty is a subject that many politicians are reluctant to discuss with voters. But it clearly generates a great deal of interest among users of FT.com. Although most of the questions and comments have come from readers in the UK, there have also been contributions to the debate from France, Germany and the US. They demonstrate a high level of interest in the politics of the constitutional treaty as well as an appetite for clarification and details of its provisions.

I hope my answers measure up to this interest in detail. For those who want to dig more, I have included references to specific articles in the constitutional treaty, where appropriate. My answers also draw on information in my book, "The Accidental Constitution - the Making of Europe's Constitutional Treaty", which is published by EuroComment of Brussels and is now in its second edition.

The original text of the constitutional treaty can be accessed on and downloaded and printed from the European Union website free of charge. Perhaps the most user-friendly version is that published in the Official Journal of the European Union, C310 of 16 December 2004, which can be reached through the special constitution pages on the EU's "Europa" portal (http://europa.eu.int/constitution/).

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David Blake of London WC1 suggested that the problems facing the EU constitution have arisen because it was negotiated by the same people [EU government leaders and officials] who negotiated the Treaty of Nice that defines the present rules of government in the EU.

I agree that one of the driving forces leading to the constitutional treaty was the messy compromise on running the EU that was agreed at the December 2000 summit in Nice. After that negotiating marathon, EU leaders quickly concluded that the complex systems agreed at Nice for decision making in the EU would be very difficult to operate in an enlarged EU of 25 member states.

But the process of reaching consensus on the constitutional treaty was very different from that which led to the Nice Treaty and, for this reason, I cannot agree with Mr Blake's suggestion that "a valid reason for being sceptical about the Constitution [is] that it was negotiated by the people who made a mess of Nice".

True, the constitutional treaty was agreed by the 25 EU leaders at their summit in Brussels in June 2004, just as 15 EU leaders agreed the Treaty of Nice in December 2000. But the negotiations among the EU states that began in October 2003 and ended the following year were preceded by discussions and negotiations in the European Convention between 28 February 2002 and mid-July 2003 that produced a draft treaty text. The Convention draft was later estimated to make up about 90 per cent of the text now going through the process of ratification.

The Convention included representatives of national parliaments, the European parliament and the European Commission as well as representatives of member states' leaders. Indeed, with 56 full members and 56 alternates from the national parliaments of the new and old member states, there were twice as many national parliamentarians in the Convention as government representatives.

The national parliamentarians formed a majority in the Convention, which comprised 207 full members and alternates in total. In addition, there were 32 full members and alternates from the European Parliament. As chapters 16 and 17 of my book show, the draft agreed by the Convention came about because of an unexpected alliance between integration minded national parliamentarians and members of the European parliament.

Taking up another of David Blake's points, I think it is a mistake to draw close comparisons between Europe's constitutional treaty and the US constitution. The European text is a "treaty establishing a constitution for Europe" and not a constitution in the US sense to create a federal state.

The European constitutional treaty has been agreed by member states, which confer specific powers on the EU. It has to be ratified under the terms of existing EU law by all of the member states unanimously. In these respects it differs from the US federal constitution. Until the ratification process is completed, or until it ends in failure, the text cannot be open to amendment.

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Douglas McLaren asked about the relationship "between the European Parliament, the EU Council, the EU Commission, the Court of Justice and any other significant institutions".

Before getting to the substance of Mr McLaren's question, I just want to stress the distinction between the EU Council, in the sense of the Council of Ministers, and the European Council, which is the regular gathering of EU heads of state and government, and which becomes a separate institution under the terms of the constitutional treaty.

The Commission, the European parliament and the Council of Ministers are the three "corners" of the EU's institutional triangle. They exist to propose, amend and agree laws that the member states have decided should be made at an EU level in a process, known as the "Community method". These laws - such as those for creating the EU's single, internal market - are laws where the member states have voluntarily agreed to pool some of their sovereignty.

The Brussels-based Commission, consisting of appointed officials from all 25 member states, represents the European interest and has the jealously guarded right to propose legislation in nearly all cases of EU law. It is the guardian of the treaties with the job of checking infringements.

The Council of Ministers consists of ministers from the member state capitals who meet in various formations (as foreign ministers, finance ministers or farm ministers, for example) in Brussels and sometimes in Luxembourg. It is supported by a relatively small Brussels-based secretariat. The Council's task is to distil the interests of the member states and approve, amend or reject proposed legislation in a process in which it usually shares power with the European parliament.

Depending on what has been agreed in the EU treaties, the ministers may reach their decisions by unanimity or by qualified majority voting (QMV), a process which allocates votes to member state representatives in relation to the size of the country concerned.

The Council also has a powerful role in those areas - notably foreign policy - where sovereignty is not pooled and governments cooperate on an "intergovernmental" basis with one another. Non-legislative foreign policy questions are often the main matters discussed by foreign ministers when they assemble in the "general affairs and external relations council".

The parliament is the only directly elected EU institution. It represents Europe's citizens and meets usually in Strasbourg but also in Brussels. Currently made up of 732 members from 25 member states, the MEPs belong to a variety of political "families", of which the biggest is the centre-right European People's Party, followed by the socialists and the liberals. Parliament has the job of approving, amending or rejecting proposed legislation as an equal partner to the Council of Ministers in a process currently known as co-decision, but which will be called the "ordinary legislative procedure" in the constitutional treaty.

What happens is that a Commission proposal goes to the parliament, which adopts a position and then passes it to the council. Under the terms of the constitutional treaty, the proposed legislation can go back and forth through two parliamentary readings and be subject to arbitration in a special conciliation committee. The process, as my book illustrates in Chapter 7.4, can become horribly complicated. Ultimately both the Council and the Parliament have to approve any compromise.

The European Council, consisting of the EU's heads of state and government, exists to give the whole enterprise strategic direction and meets four times a year. If, for example, the European Council publishes conclusions after one of its meetings calling for a specific initiative, the Commission and Council of Ministers would normally be expected to take it up. The European Council is also the body which decides changes to the EU treaties, such as the constitutional treaty.

The Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, is the final arbiter in disputes arising from EU law and ensures it is applied uniformly throughout the EU. However, its powers do not extend to foreign policy, nor will they under the constitutional treaty.

Another important institution is the European Central Bank (ECB), based in Frankfurt, which sets interest rates and manages monetary policy for the 12 member states that are members of the euro.

The institutions and the issues surrounding them are explained in my book, in chapter 2.1, most notably in chapter 9, and in subsequent chapters. The EU's institutional framework is spelled out in articles I-19 to I-32 of the constitutional treaty and in greater detail in articles III-330 to III-401.

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While still on institutional matters, Benedikt Koehler asked whether "the proposed constitution will jeopardise the independence of the ECB?"

The short answer is no. Article I-30, paragraph 3 says the ECB "shall be independent in the exercise of its powers and in the management of its finances" and that other EU institutions and the member states have to respect that independence.

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A. Alexander asked "whether the new constitutional treaty replaces the former treaties of Rome, Amsterdam, etc" or whether it merely amends them.

The constitutional treaty does indeed replace the former treaties with a single text and this is made clear in article IV-437. However, the same article also specifies that various special conditions negotiated by the member states when they joined the EU are preserved. They can be found in protocols to the treaty.

* * *

Peter Dann asked: Will the proposed constitution create more bureaucracy or less?

Will the EU "Foreign Minister" supplant those of member states?

Will the European Parliament have more power over the European Commission? He points out that "the man in the street hears and reads a lot of what the Commission is proposing but little or nothing of what the Parliament is doing."

Mr Dann has a point about the asymmetry of press coverage between the parliament and the Commission. The parliament has been growing in power for years but coverage of it has not. Reporting the parliament is not made easier by the fact that most of its meetings are in Strasbourg and many of its votes take place the day after MEPs have debated an issue.

Also it is a revising chamber, with no government as such to support or throw out. The Commission's very important prerogative as the proposer of EU legislation means it still attracts a great deal of attention - not least from the growing army of lobbyists in Brussels.

* * *

As bureaucracies go, the Commission is relatively small. And - coming now to Mr Dann's query about bureaucracy - it should stay that way. In theory, there should be no great expansion of bureaucracy because of the constitutional treaty.

The treaty contains two significant institutional changes. The first is the creation of a semi-permanent president for the European Council, who will be elected by the EU heads of government making up the European Council for a two and a half year term, renewable once (see Article I-22). When Valery Giscard d'Estaing, as Convention president, put forward his ideas on the future institutional structure of the EU to the Convention in April 2003, he suggested that this individual should be supported by a "board" or "bureau", which many feared would become a rival bureaucracy to the Commission.

However, this idea was killed off in the subsequent negotiations, leaving the semi-permanent European Council president to rely on the existing secretariat of the Council of Ministers. There are worries that he or she may not have enough bureaucratic support, because the existing president of the European Council, who is the leader of an EU member state and who holds the job for six months on a rotating basis, can always relay on his or her civil service for support.

* * *

The other innovation is the EU "foreign minister" - the subject of another of Mr Dann's questions. The foreign minister will be a "double hatted" figure, combining the jobs currently performed by the EU's high representative for foreign and security policy and the EU's external affairs commissioner (see article I-28).

The high representative's post was created in 1999 to act essentially as a trouble-shooter for the Council of Ministers. The present incumbent is Javier Solana, a Spaniard and a former Nato secretary general, who is also secretary general of the Council and has a small staff drawn from the Council secretariat. The external affairs commissioner is currently Benita Ferrero-Waldner, formerly an Austrian foreign minister. Her predecessor Chris Patten once said the job was like that of a quartermaster - not glamorous, but essential. It is her job to administer the many and varied foreign policy actions that are devolved on the Commission. The Commission's external affairs directorate runs a large staff, including Commission missions abroad, to carry out its tasks.

The EU's foreign minister will not supplant those of the member states - at least not at first. He (and it is safe to say he because Mr Solana is due to be the first holder of the post) will be appointed by member states' heads of government in the European Council with the agreement of the Commission president. The European Council can also remove him.

He will chair meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council, and it is this body, made up of member states' foreign ministers, which will give him his instructions. He will also be one of two vice presidents of the Commission and responsible in the Commission for its external affairs policy. He will have the right to propose policies to the Council. An important part of his job will be ensuring that the Council and Commission policies and actions are coordinated. The Foreign Minister "shall conduct" the EU's common foreign and security and common defence policies. But for the minister to be effective, the EU member states will first have to agree on what these are.

The EU's foreign and defence policies are overwhelmingly subject to unanimous agreement under the constitutional treaty. In the case of Iraq in 2003, for example, the EU was split and both Mr Solana and Mr Patten were powerless.

That said, the foreign minister could grow into a powerful figure if the EU can agree on common foreign and security policy issues and the minister uses the opportunities presented to him by the constitutional treaty in articles III-294 to III-308. While big member states will continue to have big diplomatic services and pursue their own foreign policy goals as well as participate in a common foreign and security policy, it is easy to imagine smaller member states being willing have the EU foreign minister act in their interest rather than a national foreign minister. The EU foreign minister will also have a bureaucracy at his disposal, which brings me back to Mr Dann's question on bureaucracy.

* * *

The constitutional treaty envisages the creation of a "European external action service" to help the foreign minister. This will be a European diplomatic service that will work alongside national diplomatic services. It will draw its staff from the Council, the Commission and the diplomatic services of the member states.

In theory, it should not increase bureaucracy because the logic of the service is to replace some of the jobs done by national diplomatic services or by existing missions abroad of Commission and the European parliament. But the details are still being worked out.

Before leaving the subject of bureaucracy, the constitutional treaty holds out the possibility of there being a European Public Prosecutors Office (article III-274) to combat crimes affecting the financial interests of the EU. But its creation will need the unanimous support of the member states , which is a remote possibility, not least because of UK opposition.

* * *

Mr Dann also asked whether the European parliament will have more power over the Commission.

The parliament emerged from the negotiations as the institution with the greatest increase of power of any of the EU bodies. Mainly this is because it has won an increased role in legislating, described in my answer to Mr McLaren: Co-decision with the Council will apply to 86 areas of legislation compared with 37 previously.

But parliament also gains some power in its relation with the Commission. For example, according to article I-27, the European Council, when proposing a candidate for Commission president, must take into account the outcome of elections to the European Parliament.

This provision has already had an effect. When Gerhard Schr?der, the German chancellor, and Jacques Chirac, the French president, failed to take account of the centre-right gains in the European elections of June 2004, they very quickly ran into strong opposition from Hans-Gert P?ttering, the leader of the centre-right in parliament. Mr P?ttering's opposition proved so effective that the two leaders were unable to secure the Commission job for their candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister who is a Flemish liberal.

* * *

Marcel Porcheron asked what difference it makes if the constitution gives the European parliament increased powers over EU legislation.

My answer is that there will be increased democratic legitimacy behind the legislation where co-decision applies, because the Parliament is directly elected by voters like you and me.

Co-decision with a directly elected parliament working alongside the Council of Ministers, representing the member states, encapsulates the EU's unique status as a Union of states and peoples.

Mr Porcheron, who I guess from his e-mail is a French national working in London's Mayfair, also asked about the impact of the social rights included in the constitutional treaty for France and the UK.

I believe the impact will be slight. Social policy was a major issue in the Convention that prepared the constitutional treaty. But the net effect of an extensive and sometimes very lively debate was to change very little. Social rights are now included in the constitutional treaty, because the EU's charter of fundamental rights, which was proclaimed as a political statement in 2000, has been incorporated as part two of the text.

But the UK government went to considerable lengths to insert wording into the treaty to ensure that these social rights could not undermine national social policies or social security laws. Some experts have expressed doubt over whether it is possible to ring-fence national social policies in this way.

At some point I would expect a case to come before the European Court to resolve these issues, but the nature and timing of such an action is impossible to forecast.

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If readers have further questions about Europe's constitutional treaty, please go to ask@ft.com

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