Majority back end to national veto

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Series Details Vol.8, No.36, 10.10.02, p22-23
Publication Date 10/10/2002
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Date: 10/10/02

By Simon Coss

IT'S hard to see how EU governments would agree to any of the multitude of draft EU constitutions currently being discussed by the Convention on Europe's future.

They have been put forward by all sorts of interested parties, ranging from respected academics to members of the European Parliament to think-tanks.

Some are long, running to 50 pages or more. Others are more succinct. For example, the draft constitution drawn up recently by UK Liberal MEP and Convention member Andrew Duff has just seven pages.

But nearly all have one point in common. They all contain some sort of 'revision clause', which states that updated versions of the Union's constitution should be agreed by qualified majority vote.

As far as governments are concerned, this is dynamite.

Put simply, the sort of revision clause being referred to would end the national veto on changing the EU's founding treaties - a fundamental principle of

EU law that has not been touched since the Treaty of Rome was signed back in 1957.

And, say many experts, an end to a national veto on treaty changes means an end to the veto full-stop.

If such a clause were adopted, individual member states would no longer be able to stop EU initiatives they did not agree with from going ahead.

To take a purely hypothetical example: if 27 out of 28 member states in an enlarged EU wanted to change the treaty rules on where the European Parliament meets then the good people of Strasbourg would quickly find themselves out of pocket to the tune of several million euro a month. The same goes for EU rules on taxation.

If most member states decided to change the treaty, so that future EU tax rules could be adopted by a qualified majority vote, then the UK - which is firmly opposed to any sort of Union-wide tax regime - could huff and puff all it wanted but wouldn't be able to blow the house down any more.

The reality is that nearly all member states have pet issues where they are more than happy to put their own interest before that of the Union, which is why it is hard to see them agreeing to give up the veto for good.

Nevertheless, the constitution-drafters are adamant that such radical changes are needed if the Union is to keepfunctioning after enlargement.

'It certainly seems to be accepted that future amendments to the treaties will not require unanimity,' explains Giovanni Grevi, associate director of studies at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC), which has just put forward its own draft constitution.

Grevi concedes that ending treaty change vetos is an extremely 'sensitive point' but insists that in practice EU governments would rarely find themselves steamrollered into accepting decisions they were opposed to.

'Most of the drafts call for a very large majority to agree these kinds of fundamental changes,' he says.

'Is it really such a sacrifice of natural sovereignty to have a voting system where 70 to 80 of people must agree before a measure is adopted?' he adds.

Grevi also points out that, although a wide range of EU policy issues can already be agreed by a qualified majority vote (QMV), in reality the system is rarely used.

'The Council of Ministers always tries to adopt measures by consensus, which means that most of the time issues are not put to the vote at all.

'QMV is a sort of nuclear option if you like,' he says.

Kirsty Hughes, of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), agrees that the draft constitutions do contain some quite 'radical' proposals.

But, she argues, the Convention would not be doing its job if it failed to address the fundamental issues at the heart of the debate over the way the Union functions.

'When you look at what the working groups in the Convention are doing, you have a really unprecedented examination of the way the EU works.

'This has just never happened in IGCs,' she says, referring to previous intergovernmental conferences, which have seen EU governments trying to agree among themselves on how the Union should develop.

Hughes is not sure whether CEPS will put forward its own draft constitution however.

She says it may be more useful, at this stage in the Convention's work to start examining in detail the many texts already on the table rather than feeding anotherdocument into the debate.

'If we get a huge plethora of texts then I'm not sure that would be very helpful. CEPS might put forward its own document but only if we feel we have something really new to add,' she explains.

According to Hughes, Convention President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is particularly taken with Duff's draft constitution.

'Andrew's draft has the wonderful virtue of being rather short and Giscard has lavished praise on it in front of the whole plenary,' she says.

'It's clear and accessible and it explains all of the main goals,' she added.

By contrast, Hughes said Giscard made only a 'brief reference' to a much longer draft constitution drawn up by centre-right German MEPs, headed by Elmar Brok.

Some observers have expressed concern that the Convention will not have the time to read all the draft constitutions that have been presented to it. However, Convention Deputy Chairman Giuliano Amato insists that he and his colleagues will give serious consideration to all documents they receive.

'These are useful contributions and, although they may not form the final document, they may well influence it,' he said.

But amid all the enthusiasm, talk of constitutions and dreams of a brave new Europe, it is important to bear one tedious reality in mind.

Before becoming law, any text Giscard and his team come up with at the end of the Convention will have to be agreed by EU governments. Unanimously.

And, if the text contains any kind of revision clause that would end the treaty change veto, the words 'turkeys', 'vote' and 'Christmas' spring to mind.

Many of the draft EU constitutions currently being discussed by the Convention on Europe's future have one point in common - they all contain some sort of 'revision clause' which states that updated versions of the European Union's constitution should be agreed by qualified majority vote, thus ending the principle of national veto.

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