Prague, 4 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A concession by Britain's new Labor Government has allowed the European Union to make an important -- but still only partial -- breakthrough in its efforts to reach consensus on basic institutional reforms before a critical summit meeting in 12 days.
The two-day Amsterdam meeting on June 16 and 17 is charged with adopting a new treaty that would modify the Union's founding document, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, and has been dubbed "Maastricht Two." Agreement on Maastricht Two is necessary before the EU can open membership talks with 10 Central and East European candidate nations, as it has promised to do six months after the document is adopted.
At the end of a two-day meeting of the EU's 15 foreign ministers in Luxembourg yesterday, Britain agreed to curtail member states' scope to veto many foreign-policy decisions taken under the Union's system of qualified majority voting. That system is also known as "weighted voting" because it gives larger major states -- like Britain -- more votes than medium-sized or small member nations. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told his colleagues Britain was dropping its long-time reservations to including in the new treaty a clause that would distinguish between decisions on general foreign-policy strategy -- which will still require consensus -- and those on the interpretation or implementation of the strategy, where no veto will now be permitted.
Even that concession, however, was a highly qualified one. Foreign-policy decisions will now mostly be made by weighted voting, but members will retain what EU officials in Brussels today called an "emergency brake" that will allow them to block decisions on the basis of important and stated reasons of national policy. In effect, the emergency brake amounts to a sort of veto of last resort. In addition, the new decision-making procedure agreed on in Luxembourg will not apply to questions with military or defense implications, which remain subject to consensual votes.
But the compromise allowed both independence-minded Britain and the integration-minded Netherlands, the EU's current president, to claim success. British officials said they were satisfied that London would retain an effective veto over foreign-policy questions and contended that the bulk of EU decisions would continue to be taken by consensus. Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo, who drafted the proposed new treaty, saw it otherwise: "All that is left to do is make the final refinements (on foreign-policy decision-making)," van Mierlo told reporters. "We are very close to a consensus (on the issue.)"
Germany's European Affairs Minister Werner Hoyer, who attended the Luxembourg meeting, confirmed that final details of how the new system will work in practice still have to be ironed out. He said that Germany, the EU's largest member state, would prefer that the emergency brake on decisions only be applied if a significant number of countries disagree with the weighted majority, not just one.
Brussels officials told our correspondent today that the Netherlands' latest draft for Maastricht Two also provides for member states to abstain what is called "constructively" on foreign-policy votes -- that is, without preventing a common position being adopted. They pointed to a recent example of how the new system would have made a difference.
In April, the officials recalled, France unilaterally renounced the EU's agreed strategy of supporting all efforts to have Communist China's human-rights abuses condemned by the United Nations body dealing with the matter (UN Commission for Human Rights, based in Geneva). Under the new system, the officials said, France would not have been permitted to renounce the EU's strategy. French officials in Brussels told RFE/RL that, for the moment, they had no comment on the matter.
That was no surprise, since Paris is preoccupied with installing a new government this week, after the French Left's electoral triumph Sunday in general elections called by conservative president Jacques Chirac. Socialist Lionel Jospin was due to name his cabinet ministers later today, if they are first approved by Chirac, but he has already indicated he will accompany the President to the Amsterdam summit. The question of whether France will speak with a single voice at the meeting remains to be resolved. So do a lot of other questions about the proposed new treaty.
Will the 15 agree on giving the EU a role in military affairs for the first time? The Dutch are proposing that the Union be allowed to ask the 12-nation West European Union, a defense organization that has long been only consultative, to carry out peace-keeping, humanitarian and crisis-management missions on the EU's behalf. But Britain, Denmark and the EU's four neutral states -- Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden -- are not enthusiastic about the suggestion.
What will be the powers granted to the EU's popularly elected Parliament? Germany wants the European Parliament's powers to be enhanced, France and Britain do not. But all three have reservations about giving the Parliament, which already has the final word on the EU's budget, the power to delay or block the implementation of foreign-policy decisions.
In Luxembourg, the three countries agreed to negotiate an accord before the Amsterdam meeting that would give the Parliament the right to approve only general foreign-policy budget lines. That would leave the EU's Council of Ministers, its chief decision-making body, sufficient leeway to ensure urgent decisions can be implemented immediately
What about the proposal to "re-weight" votes of small and big members based on population? There seems little possibility of that being adopted unanimously, since the small states, including 300,000-strong Luxembourg, want to retain their current prerogatives.
Can the 15 agree on the future size of its Executive Commission, which implements all of its decisions and often initiates policy as well? France and Germany have resolved their differences on the matter by agreeing to freeze the body at its present size of 20 commissioners, but the agreement of the other 13 is still necessary.
There is also a Franco-German accord on what is now called "flexibility," the idea of letting some EU nations cooperate more closely without others stopping them. But other members, notably Britain, believe this would lead to a hard core of integration-minded members setting up their own club and rules within the EU.
As a result, the final treaty will likely draft a long list of policy areas to be excluded from "flexible" procedures.
How will the treaty deal with proposals to drop all internal border controls, make the Union responsible for visa and asylum policies as well as fighting cross-border crime? Britain and Ireland, both island-states, have repeatedly said they will not accept any such procedures. Denmark is also against relieving individual governments of responsibility in border matters.
The list of difficult -- and perhaps, at Amsterdam at least, irresolvable -- questions could be extended to include proposed new EU policies on employment, environmental, public-health and consumer-protection measures across the Union. There are substantial disagreements on all these matters among the 15.
Yesterday's modest breakthrough on foreign-policy decision-making is a sign that the EU has begun, less than two weeks before Amsterdam, to iron out some major disagreements among its members. But it's still very hard to believe that the summit will do much more than paper over the host of differences that remain on other critical reform questions.