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East/West: Reform Proposals May Cause Strain Among EU Members

The European Union's recommendation last week to start negotiations with more Eastern candidate countries adds urgency to the EU's own internal reform plans. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the latest reform proposals, issued yesterday by an advisory panel called the "wise men."

Prague, 19 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is opening a new chapter in the debate about internal reforms, which are designed to enable it to cope with the future new members that will come from Central and Eastern Europe.

In Brussels, a panel of three elder statesmen, called the "wise men," have issued (Oct. 18) a report setting out their vision of how the EU can work effectively even when expanded to some 25 to 30 members.

Their report will be controversial, because it advocates greater powers for Brussels at the expense of the EU member governments. The wise men -- former Belgian Prime Minister Jean Luc Dehaene, former German President Richard von Weizsaecker and British business executive Lord Simon-- have compiled the report at the request of new EU Commission President Romano Prodi. Prodi wants to take their list of suggestions to the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) next spring, which will wrestle with the thorny issue of EU restructuring.

Dehaene, the panel's chairman, told RFE/RL today that there is no option but to expand eastwards, and that means there must be changes in the way the Union works:

"You have to enlarge, I think it would be a historical error if you don't take the opportunity after the end of the Cold War to end the split into east and west, so you must enlarge. But at the same time you have to see you still have an integrated Europe which can function effectively."

One of the report's controversial recommendations is for the formal adoption of qualified majority voting as the norm. Currently, in the EU's Council of Ministers, each country has veto power over most major decisions. Dehaene says that need for unanimity in decision-making often paralyzes the EU.

The report also recommends more powers for the European Parliament and for the EU Executive Commission president -- that's the office now occupied by Prodi. Dehaene explained that this is necessary because, if the number of commissioners expands in line with the number of new EU members, the commission could become little more than a debating assembly. The president would therefore need a stronger hand to arrive at decisions.

Such proposals could widen the divisions between those EU member states that seek further integration and those -- like Britain and to some extent France -- that resist giving Brussels more power. Dehaene told RFE/RL that he knows the report could provoke an airing of differences among members, but that this cannot be avoided:

"It would be even worse if we do the enlargement without having that discussion about the institutions and decision-making process. I can't imagine that those who are in favor of enlargement are looking forward to having a less effective union."

London-based EU analyst Ben Hall takes the view that present member states, even those that in principle oppose more power at the center, are resigned to some streamlining of the decision-making process. Hall -- who is with Center for European Reform -- told our correspondent that in an expanded EU there will likely be a greater divergence of interests on a whole range of issues.

"We are going a need a European Union which is more flexible, which can reflect more diversity. But we also need one which is capable of acting, which is capable of enforcing common European rules, particularly on the single market but also on things like environmental legislation, social legislation. So we do need efficient decision-making structures, and that has to be to the benefit of the new as well as present members."

Hall says he finds one of the most radical proposals in the wise men's report is that it suggests a new way of changing EU treaties. It proposes dividing treaty contents into two parts --constitutional elements and the policy elements. Unanimity would still be required to change a constitutional element, such as the powers of institutions. But only a qualified majority would be needed to change policy elements. That means, for instance that the common agricultural policy, the most expensive and irrational item in the EU's budget, could theoretically be overturned by a majority vote.

Those are the proposals from the three statesmen called the wise men. Now the debate will begin on whether the proposals are really so wise.