Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N 143 - Jan - Feb 1994 Dossier: Fighting Poverty - Country Report : Niger (EC Courier, 1994, 96 p.)
close this folderEurope
View the documentWelcome to the European Union

Welcome to the European Union

On 1 November 1993 the European Community embarked on a new stage in its development when the Treaty establishing the European Union came into force. Better known as the Maastricht Treaty after the Dutch town where it was signed by the EC's Heads of State or Government in February 1992, the text had to go through a long process of ratification by all the Member States before it became law.

Under the new Treaty, the European Economic Community officially disappears, becoming simply the European Community (the title by which it has in any case been informally known for some time). Its functions include setting up an internal market in which the movement of persons, goods, services and capital between the 12 Member States will be completely free. It is also responsible for strengthening economic and social cohesion between its members, pursuing common policies on trade, transport, the environment, agriculture and fisheries, making European industry more competitive, making sure competition in the internal market is not distorted - and conducting a policy in the sphere of development cooperation. It will deal, too, with matters of public health, energy, civil protection and tourism.

But the real innovations come with a new entity called the European Union, into which the new EC, as well as the old European Coal and Steel Community and the European Atomic Energy Community, are subsumed. The Union is a grouping of the same 12 Member States as before but has wider powers. Its member countries will now pursue a common foreign and security policy and eventually (except for Denmark, which has a special exemption) formulate a common defence policy. The purpose of this is, naturally, to safeguard their security and independence, but also to protect their shared values and interests, preserve peace and security in the world, promote international cooperation and develop and consolidate democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Council of Ministers will decide in which areas the vital shared interests of the Member States dictate a common approach - these could include the defence of human rights, disarmament and arms control policy in Europe or the prevention of nuclear proliferation - and members are committed to supporting any joint action or common position decided on. Those which are members of the UN Security Council, for example, will be required to act in concert and keep the other Member States of the Union informed of what they do.

The other new areas of close cooperation will be justice and home affairs. There will be stricter controls on the Union's external borders, to combat illicit drug trafficking and clandestine immigration. The Member States will work together on their policies towards the entry and movement of nationals of non-Union countries and the granting of asylum, as well as on international fraud, customs controls and the prosecution of civil and criminal offences. In so doing, however, they will be mindful of their tradition of granting protection to people persecuted on political grounds, and of the need to respect human rights.

As the Maastricht Treaty puts it, the Union is to promote economic and social progress which is balanced and sustainable, notably by establishing economic and monetary union in successive stages, leading to a single currency, the ecu, by 1 January 1999 at the latest. Observers and even politicians in some Member States, however, think that the periodic turmoil on the money markets and the malfunctioning of the European exchange rate mechanism since the Treaty was written cast serious doubt on whether the switch to a single currency can be achieved by the target date. Nevertheless, a special meeting of the European Council in October decided to set up a European Monetary Institute, the precursor to an eventual European Central Bank. The Bank itself will be an independent body whose main task will be to make sure there is price stability in the Union.

Member States, says the Treaty, shall regard their economic policies as a matter of common concern and coordinate them within the Council. They are required to work towards sustainable economic convergence by the end of 1996. This means bringing their inflation and long-term interest rates into a range close to those of the three countries with the best performances in terms of price stability. Governments have to avoid excessive budget deficits; they must stay within the normal fluctuation margins of the exchange-rate mechanism and not devalue their national currencies against any other Member State's currency for at least two years. The Commission will then report to the Council of Ministers on whether a majority of the Member States are ready to progress towards the single currency stage.

As the European recession bites deeper, only Luxembourg would at the moment satisfy the conditions for the move to the final stage. Denmark is making satisfactory progress, but has informed the European Council that it will not take part in full economic and monetary union at all. And the United Kingdom has a provision entitling it to put the matter to its parliament and government again before deciding whether to go ahead. At all events, whether ten, eleven or twelve Member States finally adopt the ecu, the last stage is due to begin on 1 January 1997 at the earliest and 1 January 1999 at the latest.

Another area on which the Member States failed to reach unanimous agreement is social policy. The United Kingdom has opted to stay outside an agreement whereby the countries in the Union will take wider-ranging decisions on action to improve standards of health and safety at work, working conditions, the information and consultation of workers, equal treatment for men and women on the job market and at work, and measures to help excluded categories find employment. All of this, says the agreement, has to be done with a proper regard for the need to keep the economy of the Union competitive and take account of varying national practices.

The Maastricht Treaty confers citizenship of the European Union on all nationals of the 12 Member States in addition to their national citizenship. A citizen of the Union has the right to move and reside freely in any Member State and to vote and stand as a candidate in local government and European elections in his or her country of residence. The embassy or consulate of any Member State of the Union will protect a European citizen travelling in a country where his or her own country is not diplomatically represented.

The European Par/iament benefits from changes in the powers of the European institutions which are designed to strengthen democratic control of the Union's activities. It is to play a larger part in decision-making: for the first time, it has the right to ask the Commission to put forward proposals for legislation which it considers should be adopted, and can, in effect, stop the Council adopting any act of which Parliament disapproves. Also for the first time, Parliament has to endorse the appointment, by Member States' governments, of the Members of the Commission, while retaining the right to dismiss the Commission as a body and to approve the Union budget. European citizens may petition Parliament on any aspect of European legislation which directly affects them, and Parliament will appoint an independent Ombudsman to investigate complaints of maladministration by Union insitutions.

To give better representation of views and interests below the level of the nation-state, the Treaty on European Union sets up an entirely new body, the Committee of the Regions, which has to be consulted by the Council and the Commission when legislation with a regional impact is being prepared.

Some critics of the Maastricht Treaty complain that it burdens the people of Europe with yet another level of government. An answer to these comes in the section defining the areas in which the European Community and the Member States respectively are to act. This defines a principle known in the somewhat daunting Euro-jargon as susidiarity which provides that in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community (not the Union) shall take action only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States. Thus, for example, it is not for the Community to decide whether a Member State should introduce or abolish daylight saving time or dictate its policy on primary education. But it will be entitled to act in an area such as cross-border pollution of the environment, where no Member State can act to protect itself unless the others take action as well.

The Community is also committed to contributing to the flowering of the Member States' cultures, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing Europe's common cultural heritage to the fore. This is a new area of competence for the Community and was introduced to allay fears that economic and, ultimately, political union could spell the end of each country's special identity and the imposition of dull cultural uniformity

To mark the imminent arrival of the European Union, the Heads of State or Government of the Twelve, with President Jacques Delors of the Commission and Hans van den Broek, Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, held a special summit in Brussels on 29 October. They at once displayed their determination to take political cooperation between them much further than before, asking the Council to draw up plans for joint action on foreign policy, specifically the promotion of peace and stability in central and eastern Europe, support for democratisation in Russia and the peace process in the Middle East, backing for the transition in South Africa and the search for a solution to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. New institutions created by the Treaty were also parcelled out. As well as giving the European Monetary Institute to the German financial capital, Frankfurt, the Ministers decided that Denmark, a country with high environmental standards, is to be the home of the European Environmental Agency. Europol, the European criminal intelligence agency, goes to the Netherlands, the European Foundation for Professional Training to Italy and the European Centre for Vocational Training to Greece. Spain wins the Trademarks Office and the Health and Safety at Work Agency, Ireland the Veterinary Inspection Office, Portugal the European Drug Observatory and Britain the European Medicines Evaluation Agency. A department to translate for these new bodies will be set up in Luxembourg. As before, the ordinary part-sessions of the European Parliament will go on being held in France and the other main EC institutions are staying in Belgium.

There is still one puzzle in the ordinary citizen's mind, however: what is this new structure supposed to be called ? The Maastricht Treaty talks about the European Union in some places and the European Community in others, when discussing the respective powers of each. This distinction is very right and proper but is perhaps not easy for the layman to grasp. At all events, the Council of Ministers, which has powers in all areas covered by the Treaty, has decided to call itself the Council of the European Union, but the Commission, which does not have such powers, is to go on being officially known as the Commission of the European Communities, or the European Commission for short. We on The Courier will reflect the new advance in Europe's integration by changing our masthead to reed 'European Union'.