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View the documentThe future shape of the European Union
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The future shape of the European Union

Initial thoughts of the Commission in the run-up to the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference

When Commission President Jacques Santer and his colleague Manuel Oreja addressed a packed press conference in Brussels on 10 May, it is likely that some of the journalists present had mixed emotions. Following a relative lull in the 'greet debase' over where the EU is heading, thoughts are now fuming to 1996 and the next intergovernmental Conference (IGC). The subject should provide rich pickings for the media as the various interested parties set up their stalls and strive to 'sell' their vision of the KU. Heated arguments are the bread and butter of journalism and there will be no shortage of these in the coming two years. At the same time, memories of Maastricht are still fresh. Seemingly interminable debates, which saw significant additions to the lexicon of EU jargon, presented the news gatherers with a formidable challenge- which they didn't always succeed in overcoming. The people of Europe could hardly be unaware that big issues affecting their future were being decided in the Dutch city. They were bombarded with reports about it for many months, three countries had full-scale referendum campaigns and others had lengthy Parliamentary debates which were exhaustively reported. But too often it seemed like the Tower of Babel. Politicians and pressure groups, 'sceptics' end 'federalists', constitutional experts and monetary specialists appeared in procession on the television screens to offer varying, and often contradictory interpretations of such things as 'subsidiarity' and 'federalism'. They spoke of the two new 'pillars', EMU, convergence targets, co decision and qualified majorities. And many Europeans 'switched off', either literally or metaphorically. Those who persevered and sought elucidation in the text of the Maastricht Treaty itself (helpfully supplied by the Commission) found no succour there. Without a copy of the pre-existing treaties for cross-reference, the text was almost impossible to understand.

It was this unhappy situation which saw the Maastricht Treaty teeter on the precipice before finally being pulled back on to firm ground. The Danes voted. No but accomodatingly decided to have a rerun of the poll. The French almost voted 'No' but as it fumed out, a miss was as good as a mile. The British Parliament came close to halting the whole process just as the finishing line seemed to be in sight.

For Jacques Santer, one of the key imperatives will be to avoid a similar situation developing in 1995-96. That was why he warned of the risk of alienating Europe's citizens when he spoke to reporters on 10 May. There was a need, he said, to involve them in the debate and to take measures to make the whole system more democratic and transparent. In fact, Mr Santer and Mr Oreja were ostensibly presenting a report on the functioning of the Maastricht Treaty. But while emphasising that the Commission had no proposals on the table at the moment, Mr Oreja acknowledged that, in highlighting the successes and shortcomings of the Treaty, they were clearly identifying areas that required action.

So what will the 1996 IGC be about ? According to the Commission President, it will not be about extending the substantive competences of the EU (whose components parts are the European Community and the two pillars of intergovernmental cooperating covering foreign and security policy, and justice and home affairs). In other words, it is not about what the Union does but about bow it does it.

There seems to be a general consensus that the EU's decision-making procedures have become too complex and unwieldy. The power of any country to block proposals in the Council of Ministers has already been reduced but the national veto remains in a number of areas and many see this as a threat to further progress in an enlarged Union of 15 members. With several Mediterranean and Eastern European countries knocking at the door, the EU is expected to grow further. Enlargement is one of the few ideas which seems to unite all the member states, but there are fears that unless the veto is curtailed, the result will be paralysis. The Commission did, however, stress that it did not envisage removal of the veto altogether-it should still be retained for 'constitutional' issues.

A further question relates to the system's democratic legitimacy. Those who argue that democracy has lost out in the EU's structure may have a point. Laws are proposed by an unelected Commission while national ministers, who are the 'legislators', do deals behind closed doors -although it should be recognised that the latter have a 'democratic' mandate (more or less) from their country's electorates. In fact, the powers of the European Parliament have increased significantly with successive treaty changes but it is still far from being the sovereign body in the system. Complexity is another problem that has resulted from the piecemeal granting of new powers to the Parliament.

As the Commission observes in the preamble to its report (reprinted below), the result is that there are now about 20 different procedures being used. The Commission would like to see this reduced to just three. In addition, the report talks of bringing national parliaments more fully into the process.

The Commission is also concerned about the way in which the two 'inter-governmental' pillars of the Union are operating-or, in many cases, failing to operate. Those who favoured closer integration at Maastricht were keen to see foreign policy/defence and justice/home affairs brought in to the system. Those who opposed moves towards a more 'federal' Europe were determined that this should not result in a loss of sovereignty. The result was a classic compromise. The Union would have responsibility for coordinating action in these areas but the 'supranational' Community would not- hence the two new pillars. The result, of course, is even more administrative complication and, as events have subsequently shown, the Union does not always act decisively or indeed speak with one voice.

Against an a la carte Europe

Finally, given the increasingly heterogeneous nature of the Union, the issue arises of how far one or a group of member states can choose to opt out of particular policy areas. For Jacques Santer, the idea of 'Union solidarity' is paramount and he therefore expressed opposition to permanent opt-outs. Recognising the political realities, however, he acknowledged that the system should be flexible enough to allow countries to move towards the Union's common goals at different speeds. Denmark and the UK already have opt-outs under the Maastricht Treaty but there is an understandable concern that too much fragmentation could put the whole edifice in danger.

In the coming months, the Commission's initial thoughts will be crystallised into more formal position papers and ultimately into a set of proposals which will be presented to the national governments. Although Jacques Santer, with his stress on 'no new competences', was keen to downplay the possibility of conflict between the key actors at the IGC, it is difficult to see how this can be avoided.

Measures to curtail national vetos, improve the democratic credentials of the Union (which must surely favour the Parliament) and strengthen the 'intergovernmental pillars', can hardly fail to alter the current institutional balance which heavily favours the Council of Ministers. For the Commission and, it would appear, the majority of member states, construction work on the EU should continue, even if the dreaded 'F' word (federal) is eschewed for diplomatic reasons. In some member states, the approach appears to be very different- the talk is of 'drawing a line in the sand' or perhaps even reverting to more inter-governmentalism with the 'repatriation' of certain common policies. Few of the leading actors are prepared to voice the opinion that these visions are directly in conflict with each other. At the moment, it is difficult to see how the conflict can be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. But then, the EU seems to have a knack of reconciling the irreconcilable.

Simon Homer