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Friday, 8 December, 2000, 16:26 GMT
Bigger EU - smaller voice?
EU parliament chamber
Small nations may lose out in an enlarged EU
By the World at One's Gillian Hargreaves

How do you reconcile European Union enlargement with smaller countries retaining influence in Brussels?

The Netherlands with a population of a little over 15m people has been part of the European project from the start.

Much of its reason for wanting integration with its neighbours was born out of occupation and privation during the Second World War. It was a founder member of the European coal and steel board back in the 1950s.

But with enlargement there'll have to be changes to the creaking institutions of Europe. After all they were set up nearly 40 years ago to deal with six member states - not the 27 being considered now.

Battle

And for the Dutch MEP Michael van Hulten the intergovernmental treaty will be a battle between the big countries and smaller states.

Michael van Hulten
Michael van Hulten says the Dutch will want to retain influence
"The Netherlands is often very close to the UK on issues such as taxation and social security where we want to defend our national interests," he says.

There are three main areas for reform: changes to qualified majority voting, reform of the commission, and voting in the council of ministers - all being discussed at Nice.

The French presidency has identified 49 areas where qualified majority voting can be extended, but the French like the British want to hold on to their veto over taxation matters.

Complex formula

The big states want a greater differential between them and the smaller members in the council of ministers.

Germany, Europe's largest state wants the greatest number of votes. But France is vehemently opposed to this.

A complex formula has been drawn up for discussion at Nice. The most favoured requires two simple majorities - a majority in the council of ministers and a majority of the European population.

The Netherlands will also be pushing for more votes too.

Unwieldy

With plans for enlargement come plans for reform of the European commission.

Frits Bolkestein
Frits Bolkestein: EU Commissioner for the Internal Market
At the moment there are 20 commissioners for 15 member states, but when the EU explains it will become unwieldy. And therefore all countries will not have a commissioner all the time.

Frits Bolkestein the Dutch commissioner thinks the Dutch electorate will not accept the loss of their commissioner.

"It's important from the point of view of legitimacy. Not having a commissioner [voters] will feel more alienated from what happens in Brussels," he says.

But Max Konstand, one of the architects of the European union, thinks the Dutch should not fear an erosion of their influence at the table in Brussels.

He points out that their rights are protected in law, and of course any negotiations agreed at Nice will still have to be ratified in the member state's own parliaments.

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 ON THIS STORY
Gillian Hargreaves
reporting for the PM programme

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