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Thursday, 7 December, 2000, 09:33 GMT
What does Nice mean for the UK?

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is heading for one of the most important EU summits for nearly a decade, as the European Union begins preparations for massive enlargement.

BBC News Online explains the detail and sets out what the key issues will be at Nice on 8 and 9 December.

What is the Nice summit?

It is one of the regular six-monthly meetings of the leaders of the 15 members of the EU.

France is the current holder of the rotating EU presidency and is hosting the meeting in Nice.

The packed agenda includes, a new charter of rights, and radical cuts in the use of the national veto as well as a re-weighting of the influence individual nations have in the Council of Ministers.

What is at stake?

It looks certain that the UK will surrender its national veto over EU proposals on some issues.

This is because as the EU is preparing to accept up to a dozen new members in the coming years it has become necessary to streamline the European Commission's decision-making process.

At present qualified majority voting (QMV) is used to decide most issues.

But as the EU grows if each nation were to retain its national veto over policy changes decision making would becoming increasingly prone to deadlock.

How much power will the UK cede?

There are literally dozens of policy areas where the end of the national veto is being mooted.

But Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has made it clear that the UK will not abandon the veto on six key areas which he identifies as: taxation, social security, border controls, defence, treaty changes and the UK's own resources.

Do the Nice proposals command a consensus in the UK?

No. The Conservatives are opposed to the transfer of any more power to Brussels.

They see the changes likely to be made at Nice as a massive assault on the national veto, and have already pledged to bring in laws, if elected, to stop the further transfer of power to the EU without referendums.

On which issues could the UK lose it veto?

Areas were ministers could agree to an end of the veto include:

  • Funding of Europe wide political parties
  • Rules on checks carried out on people at external borders
  • EU participation in WTO negotiations
  • Rules of procedure of the European court of Justice
  • Transport issues
  • Intellectual property rights

    What else is at stake?

    The UK could also lose one of its two EU commissioners at Nice.

    The government is likely to agree to this in exchange for a re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers.

    What is the charter of rights?

    Another one of the controversial proposals at Nice is a new charter of rights.

    The Fundamental Charter of Rights sets out 54 basic rights for EU citizens, ranging from the right to life to the right to marry and the right to strike.

    This will spell out for the first time in once place the rights of EU citizens.

    Eurosceptics fear that this may become legally binding, but one pre-condition to the UK signing up to the new charter is that it does not bring in any new rights.

    The UK is also determined to ensure the new charter will not interfere with the decisions of UK courts.

    Why does the government back enlargement?

    Labour believes that allowing other countries to join the EU will improve the prospects for peace and prosperity across Europe.

    They also believe that creating a larger single European market, which allows for the free exchange of goods and services, will bring economic benefits to all members.

    Countries awaiting membership include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Malta and Cyprus.

    Could EU integration proceed at different speeds?

    Ministers argue that there is no need for a multi-speed Europe.

    But other countries suggest that with so many new nations set to join, it is inevitable that some will want greater levels of political co-operation than others.

    One of the proposals to be discussed at Nice is the creation of a framework which would allow different groups of countries to make progress on political co-operation at different speeds.

    Critics fear this could lead to political union among a core group of member states, led by France and Germany, while other countries, in particular the UK, would be left behind.

    This core group could also back greater co-operation in those areas where other countries could have used their veto.

    For instance, a core group which would be unlikely to include Britain could vote to harmonise taxes or social security systems.

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