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Europe: A summit plagued by conflicts of interest

by Julio Godoy

Nice, France, 5 Dec 2000 (IPS) -- The heads of state and government of the 15 European Union (EU) member states will attempt, at their 7-10 December summit in this city on the French Riviera, to hash out an agreement on the reform of the bloc’s institutions, with a view to enlargement.

The EU summit will culminate the round of negotiations known as the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), which was launched in February.  However, the conflicts of interest between the member states regarding the institutional reforms indicate that the treaty agreed in Nice will be limited in the best of cases, say observers.

The front-running eastern European candidate countries - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia - were originally slated to join the bloc in 2004.

Turkey, Romania, Slovakia, the Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia are also negotiating for admission.

But the difficulties that the EU has run into in reforming its institutions have forced the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to review the original timetables.

The institutional reforms are seen as vital to the future functioning of an enlarged 27-member EU. For that reason, the Nice summit has been billed as a moment for “re-founding” the EU, every bit as important as the 1992 and 1997 summits in Maastricht and Amsterdam.

There are four key items on the reform agenda: the re-weighting of member states’ votes, the elimination of the right of veto and its replacement by qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, a cap on the number of members of the European Commission, and enhanced cooperation between small groups of EU states.

The conflicts of interest between the EU’s current members led the European Commission President Romano Prodi to express fears that the Nice summit could turn out to be a fiasco.

On Monday, Prodi said the chances that the gathering would end in failure were “50 percent.” Given that outlook, Germany has already proposed a new Inter-Governmental Conference for 2004.

Germany’s proposal to modify the current distribution of votes of member states in the Council of Ministers has unleashed a series of conflicting demands from other countries. Germany, Italy, France and Britain, the four most populous EU nations, each have 10 votes in the Council of Ministers. At the other end of the spectrum is Luxembourg, the smallest state, with two votes.

Germany, whose population has expanded to 82 million since the reunification in 1990, sees the current distribution of votes as failing to reflect the demographic differences among member countries, and is seeking a re-weighting of votes, which would make it the most powerful state within the EU.

But the re-weighting would shift the balance of power between Germany and France, which has a population of 61 million. France is not keen on that prospect.

[Some unidentified French officials have been quoted in the media as pointing out that at the time the European Community was founded, France agreed to equal votes with Germany, though the latter at that time had much less population (counting France and the French overseas territories together]

The Netherlands and Spain are also seeking more votes. Spain argues that its fiscal policy and membership in the monetary union - made up of 11 EU countries - have won it the right to parity with the four big states - Germany, France, Italy and Britain.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, argues that it should have more votes than Belgium, which has a smaller population.

One alternative to the re-weighting of votes is the introduction of the “double majority” vote in the Council of Ministers.

Under that proposal, which has been submitted to the European Commission and could secure a consensus in Nice, future decisions by the Council of Ministers would be approved by a majority of countries representing more than half of the EU’s total population. Such a system would prevent absolute supremacy for the most populous states and impotence and marginalisation for the least populous.

The elimination of the right of veto is another touchy issue. There are currently 70 areas of EU policy in which the bloc’s decisions must be reached by unanimity.

But four countries want to hold onto their right of veto in important policy-making areas.

Britain does not want to give up its veto on tax questions, Germany does not want to lose national control over immigration policy, and France wants to preserve its sovereignty over cultural policy - an area which the World Trade Organisation insists, must be free of controls and state subsidies; Spain wants to remain a beneficiary of regional aid funds and thus retain a veto over these decisions.

On that point, Spain has the backing of Portugal and Greece, which fear reduced availability of such funds when poorer countries in central, eastern and southern Europe join the bloc and will need assistance in upgrading infrastructure and boosting agriculture.

Another key reform is a limit on the number of European Commission members. The Brussels-based Commission currently has 20 offices, and each country has the right to designate at least one commissioner.

The front-runner candidates for admission to the EU would like that tradition to remain unchanged. But the Commission is already slowed down by bureaucratic red tape.

Those familiar with Brussels bureaucracy say that the oversight systems set in place by member states and the relatively small size of the staff slow down the Commission’s work. For that reason, the general consensus in the EU is that the number of commissioners must not simply be allowed to continue growing.

Michel Barnier, the commissioner for the Intergovernmental Conference overseeing the reform process, warned that if the EU expanded to nearly 30 members, and each state had the right of veto and was entitled to send commissioners to Brussels, the bloc would simply be paralysed.  Barnier said that while “useful reforms” would come out of the Nice summit, it would not produce “the big reform” that an enlarged EU would need to remain workable.

To get around that paralysis, some states are interested in agreeing on mechanisms for cooperation outside the scope of the current treaties.  Through enhanced cooperation, those states would form a “hard core” vanguard, which would make faster progress towards political integration.

French President Jacques Chirac, who currently holds the EU presidency, made a tour of EU capitals in the past 10 days to smooth out conflicts.  But despite the flurry of talks, and meetings among member states, the countries remained adamant on their positions on the eve of the summit.

Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators belonging to non-governmental organisations opposed to a predominantly “neo-liberal” EU are also expected to converge on Nice.

The NGOs are especially alarmed that the EU could take the so-called “fast-track” approach towards talks in the WTO—in effect forcing the Council of Ministers (and thus national governments) to approve or reject a package as a whole. Activists see that procedure as an anti-democratic mechanism, which would act to the detriment of institutions that they see as the legitimate representatives of civil society.

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