Preventing another treaty reform debacle

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Series Details Vol 7, No.7, 15.2.01, p14
Publication Date 15/02/2001
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Date: 15/02/01


Ostensibly their long-term plans will address citizens' fear of an elusive shift in power to Brussels at the expense of national control. In reality, these intentions are doomed to fail, probably under the Dutch presidency in 2004.

High on the agenda is the redefinition of competencies between the European institutions and member states. The experience of the past few decades has shown, however, that such demarcation is not really possible due to unforeseen social developments.

What starts off as a taboo - such as giving up a national currency or co-operating significantly in the areas of justice or defence - later becomes acceptable after it is shown to be desirable.

In addition, there is advanced political insight. Whereas many Liberals first felt that European social guidelines were an unwanted infringement of national sovereignty, we have come to accept many of them as they have proven themselves to be valuable.

Also, it is possible for a European authority to outlive its usefulness. For example, agricultural income policy can easily be given back to national governments.

Another point on the agenda concerns the role of the parliaments of the member states. This subject is above all inspired by national politicians' fear of losing their grip on Brussels.

The proposal has been made to introduce a European senate, consisting of national representatives. Allegedly, insufficient justice is done to the interests of the member states in the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament. However, the opposite is true, as experience teaches me every day in Brussels. Yet another body that co-decides is not only completely superfluous but also could be fatal for the concept of decisiveness in an expanded Union. Moreover, a double mandate is unworkable.

The choice of subjects is also a response to the criticism that government leaders concentrated too much on their own short-term interests in Nice and lacked a broad vision of the European future. Everywhere the call can be heard for political prospects: witness the controversial speech by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

The collective need of the people who went to Nice to now develop from politicians into visionary statesmen is remarkable, because for decades government leaders deliberately kept long-term subjects off the agenda. They considered their fundamental differences of opinion on the subject to be unresolvable and there was no political necessity to make war over them.

Experience has shown that concessions are not made for drastic reforms until the urgent need is absolutely unavoidable and that is by definition never the case for long-term policy. Agreement about the final goal was not considered necessary as long as agreement could be reached about the next common step.

The minimal result at Nice is the most recent proof that this rule still applies.

The French summit debacle has not only led to a misguided new agenda but also to a discussion about the way in which an amendment to a convention should come about. How can governments be prevented from engaging in such nasty horse trading again?

In the meantime the idea of Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen to use the 'convention model' in the future has been well received in Brussels and the other European capitals. Supporters say that, based on the example of the Charter of Fundamental Rights Convention, governments, the European Commission, national and European MPs should meet to prepare a new convention text. They also want representatives of the candidate member states to participate.

The reasoning holds that just as the Charter Convention eventually produced a satisfactory result, it might also work very well for a revision of the Treaty.

Unfortunately this proposal is not right, either, because it is based on an incorrect political analysis. The Charter came about despite, rather than thanks to, the convention model. Without a broad mandate for the President to produce a text, the greatly divided participants would never have found a solution.

Whereas Nice was about the redivision of power in Europe, the Charter was only about reiterating rights and obligations that already existed in the member states. And the minimal outcome was not even recorded in a legally-binding way but only acquired the status of a political statement.

No, such a colourful collection of politicians, varying from confirmed Italian federalists to anti-European British Conservatives, will naturally never agree about fundamental issues.

The plans for the content and organisation of new negotiations after Nice are inspired more by political cowardice than by the need to prepare the EU for enlargement. Many politicians have neglected to explain to their voters that the new accessions will unavoidably detract from national sovereignty. They idly and unnecessarily play on the citizens' fears of losing national sovereignty.

Of course, the public's concern has to be taken seriously. Supranational policies should be dropped if their added value cannot be shown. Cultural diversity must remain in Europe.

But a bolt on the European door, as planned in the new agenda, wrongfully rules out the eventual needs of society. National politicians who encourage resistance to Europe among their citizens solely out of fear of losing their own influence are deliberately being short-sighted. Their national interests are after all very much represented in the Council and the Parliament. Politicians and the media have the democratic duty to honestly inform the public about what Europe really means for citizens.

A Union of 28 member states threatens to become ungovernable due to the many conflicting national interests. Paralysis can only be prevented if far-reaching institutional adjustments are implemented. Nice failed in this and that has to be rectified now.

Majority decision-making has to become the rule. And the position of the Commission and the Parliament, both responsible for the common European perspective, have to be strengthened in relation to the Council, where the national approach dominates.

European government leaders are taking the road to renationalisation of decision-making, but enlargement requires 'Europeanisation'. The credibility of the EU will be damaged even further if it gets bogged down in dissent.

The globalisation of the economy, communication and transport - as well as the increase in scale of problems with the environment and crime - make additional cross-border government unavoidable.

Citizens accept European measures if their necessity is shown. In the end they find the content of the decisions more important than the level at which they are taken.

Responsible politicians should demonstrate honestly how Europe functions and why, even if it is difficult. They should not set a course out of political opportunism that they know is impassable. A new fiasco can still be prevented. Let us reopen the discussion about the agenda under the Swedish presidency.

Following the Nice summit fiasco the author, a Dutch MEP, argues that majority decision-making has to become the rule to agree long-term plans for a growing Europe's future.

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