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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 18:21 GMT
EU: Reform and expansion

Reform and expansion of the European Union remain high on the agenda - and the Nice Treaty of December 2000 sought to deal with it.


INTRODUCTION

Two months before he arrived at the European Union's much-vaunted Nice summit on expansion and restructuring, Prime Minister Tony Blair told a Warsaw audience that Europe could be "a superpower but not a superstate".

The question that was asked after the Nice summit in December last year was whether Mr Blair got what he wanted.

The prime minister and his foreign secretary Robin Cook certainly thought they had returned home victorious, saying that it had delivered reform and expansion.

But the Conservatives saw it as little more than giving away more and more of British sovereignty to Brussels.


BACKGROUND

The EU's current structures, formed in the 1950s under the Treaty of Rome, have been creaking under the strain for years.

They were initially designed for six members and currently accommodate 15. Proposed expansion expected to take membership up to 27 countries.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary could start membership procedures at the end of 2002, in preparation for the 2004 European elections. Another nine nations are in the wings.


INSTITUTIONS

The EU comprises the following key institutions:

  • The Council of Ministers
  • The European Commission
  • The European Parliament

    The Council of Ministers, a cabinet of cabinets, comprises the heads of government who come together to make law, largely based on Commission proposals.

    Most decisions are taken by qualified majority voting (QMV) though national vetoes exist on some key areas.

    The Commission is the EU's executive and civil service. Twenty commissioners drawn from the member states propose policy and draw up European-wide legislation.

    It also acts as a watchdog, bringing legal action against governments and firms that break EU law.

    The European Parliament is the world's only directly elected trans-national assembly.

    It has already evolved to some degree. It began life as a debating chamber with limited powers but now has greater influence over EU legislation and can call the Commission to account.


    THE PROBLEMS

    So what would happen following expansion?

    If the EU were a mere talking shop, probably not a lot. But the stated political aim of the member states is for the union to become the world's strongest knowledge-based economy within a decade.

    What's holding up the EU?
    Voting procedures
    Distribution of power
    Commission size
    Would the old structures allow that to happen?

    Firstly, the big four, Germany, the UK, France and Italy, feared that their strength in the Council of Ministers would be neutered by a host of smaller nations effectively being able to gang up against them and their proposals for change.

    Secondly, governments foresaw complete paralysis as each of the 20-plus members exercised its national veto in a different policy area - effectively killing any ideas of developing a highly flexible suite of institutions capable of dealing with change.

    Thirdly, the commission, already criticised as too large a body, could become a behemoth of unmanageable proportions as each new state is given a seat in the executive. The bureaucracy would cease to serve the citizens - some observers say this is the case already.


    NICE TREATY

    The summit negotiations were the longest in EU history as the talks struggled on for five days amid fears of total collapse.

    Nice Treaty voting allocation

    France, Germany, Italy, UK : 29

    Spain: 27
    Netherlands: 13
    Belgium, Greece, Portugal: 12
    Sweden, Austria: 10
    Denmark, Finland, Ireland: 7
    Luxembourg: 4
    The larger nations wanted to set a limit on the size of commission but the small states insisted on keeping their guaranteed seats on the body, their crucial lever of influence.

    But eventually the nations agreed to a reweighting of votes in the council, giving the larger nations more influence. The new deal now means that three large states and one smaller one can form a blocking minority of 91 out of 345 votes.

    Qualified majority voting, the most contentious issue for the UK, was extended to cover 29 new policy areas including trade and professional qualifications and trade in most services.

    The members agreed to cap the number of seats on the commission at 27 - to take in the new members - with the two-seat holding nations (including the UK) to give up one seat in 2005.

    Qualified Majority Voting hurdles
    62 votes out of 87 (current situation)
    Post-enlargement:
    255 votes out of 345
    Half of member states
    62% of EU population

    New rules were agreed for "enhanced co-operation" to allow eight or more states to go it alone on initiatives where others disagree - providing they don't have defence implications.

    What was left up in the air was the future relationship between the member states, regions and Brussels - in other words, the actual fabric of the European Union.

    Germany has requested another Intergovernmental Conference in 2004 to define these relationships as well as the highly controversial Charter of Rights, the proposed document setting out social and employment rights for all EU citizens.

    It may be at that date that Europe's citizens finally get to see in which direction their leaders want to take them.


    VICTORY FOR THE UK?

    Prime Minister Tony Blair returned to the UK describing the Nice deal as a victory.

    Mr Blair stressed that he had successfully defended vetoes on taxation and social security issues.

    He argued that the UK now had more voting strength in the council and had headed off moves for a two-speed Europe, something which could sideline the UK.

    The government also insisted that it had neutered - at least for the time being - the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Some member states wanted to see it enforceable under EU law, and some regard it as an embryonic constitution.

    Strong criticism

    However, the Conservatives have declared that they would not ratify the treaty because it takes the UK further down the road of "deepening and tightening" EU integration.

    The party leadership is vehemently opposed to the Charter of Rights which they believe would make Westminster subservient to the European Court of Justice.

    The Liberal Democrats believe that the treaty has left too many loose ends - and that the government was lucky to come back with any agreement at all.


    WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

    For a start, the treaty requires Westminster ratification - but was left out of the Queen's Speech.

    It appears that the government is taking the same approach as the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major.

    He decided not to put the Maastricht Treaty before the House of Commons, choosing to wait and see what happened with the 1992 general election.

    On a positive note for Treaty supporters, Sweden has just taken on the EU presidency and has made enlargement the priority. It wants membership negotiations to begin within months.

    But for many pro-Europeans, Nice didn't deliver the much-needed radical overhaul they expected.

    Instead, it appeared to paint a public picture of a European Union characterised by awkward relationships based on national self-interest.


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