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Monday, 11 December, 2000, 12:38 GMT
Analysis: Doubts beset Nice deal
EU family photo
The EU family: Not so united
By Barnaby Mason and Tamsin Smith in Nice

This has been the longest rollercoaster of a summit in EU history.

The French Minister for Europe compared the negotiations in Nice to building a house of cards.

At times the house seemed dangerously close to toppling.

The aim of the summit was to streamline the EU's decision making so that it doesn't grind to a halt as the membership rises from the present 15 to 27 or even more.

But far from streamlining the system, the changes may make strong action by the Council of Ministers - the main decision-making body - harder.

Implacable Britain

There was agreement to extend the use of majority voting to some new areas of policy.

French President Jacques Chirac
Mr Chirac: French drafts almost caused a rebellion
But implacable opposition from Britain prevented the abolition of national vetos in anything relating to taxation and social security.

The most striking feature of the summit was the bitterness that burst out into the open between large and small member states.

The big states wanted to set a limit on the size of the EU executive, the European Commission, but the small states insisted on keeping their guaranteed seats on the Commission - a crucial lever of influence in Brussels.

So the problem was kicked into the future for someone else to solve.

The Commission question was intertwined with reform of the Council of Ministers.

'Bulldozer' Chirac

The big states insisted on increasing their voting weight on the Council to reflect more accurately their population size.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt
Belgium's prime minister finally backed down
Power, psychology, national pride and historical rivalries all intervened to prolong the arguments into the small hours.

The formula the French presidency came up with provoked a rebellion by the small countries that almost wrecked the summit: they signalled that they were not going to be steamrollered into an agreement, especially by "the bulldozer" President Chirac.

Three drafts on re-weighting of votes were needed before Belgium finally backed down - not before having negotiated more votes for applicant countries Romania and Lithuania.

The result is an extraordinarily complex decision-making system.

German power

There are mechanisms to enable both big and small states to block decisions.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer
Germany's Joschka Fischer made concessions

Overall, the changes will increase the dominance of the big members and Germany will be able to use one new mechanism to wield the power of its 80 million people directly.

France, despite its significantly smaller population, insisted on keeping the same number of votes as Germany in the Council.

But the Germans have ended up with more power in the European Union than they would have gained from a few extra symbolic votes.

Furthermore, at Berlin's request, leaders agreed to a new conference in 2004 to further define the division of power between Brussels, member states and regions.

Overall the Nice summit showed Europe at its most awkward and divisive, raising questions about how well it will cope when yet more national interests join the fray after enlargement.


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See also:

07 Dec 00 | Nice summit glossary
11 Dec 00 | Europe
07 Dec 00 | Europe
06 Dec 00 | Europe
06 Dec 00 | UK Politics
09 Dec 00 | Europe
09 Dec 00 | UK Politics
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