The decision to set up a “Convention on the Future of Europe” to transform the EU treaties into a European Constitution was decided at the European Council of Laeken in December 2001. The limits of the “traditional” intergovernmental conferences for reforming European Union institutions to prepare for enlargement had become obvious to more and more people after the Nice Summit in December 2000. Negotiating such complex agreements under the glare of a media spotlight among heads of state and government had proven, at Nice at least, to be a recipe for embarrassing squabbles and institutional gridlock. The possibility of having a deliberative process that would gather representatives of the national governments and members of the European and national parliaments also appears to be progress in terms of making the workings of the EU more democratic and transparent. Fortunately, a precedent existed: the 1999 Convention to elaborate a “European Charter on Fundamental Rights.” This German idea is considered a success both in terms of method and substance and became a viable concept for starting a more ambitious reform of EU institutions.
In Laeken, the French government was not among the most ardent supporters of a new deliberative body to reform the EU treaties. Before Laeken, the French Minister for European Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, expressed uncertainty that the Convention was the right structure to deal with “all the questions on the agenda of institutional reform.” Nevertheless, the French government—much like the British one—did accept the new body in Laeken for three reasons: (1) the Convention is only deliberative and is preparing the work of an intergovernmental conference, thus it was not considered a threatening institution; (2) the French government believed that it could use the deliberative process to defend its own ideas on the EU, particularly because Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former President of the French Republic, was to be Chairman of the Convention; (3) the Convention was an effective way to wait for the elections in France and in Germany, while appearing to be making progress on the future of the EU. Thus, although the Convention began its work in March 2002, the French government became more firmly involved in its deliberative process only after the French elections of April-June 2002.
For this reason, it is now the appropriate moment to describe the French participation in the Convention, to outline the French positions on the main issues on the agenda, and to ask if the Convention represents an opportunity for France to give a new impulse and a new coherence to its policy on the EU.