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EU: Reform Conference Puzzles Over Expanded Union's Parliament

With eastward expansion of the European Union looming on the horizon, the EU's present Inter-Governmental Conference is puzzling over how to fit scores of new Eastern deputies into the European Parliament -- a body which is constitutionally limited in size. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the various formulas being talked about.

Prague, 30 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The riddle is this: if you have a 10-liter bucket full of water, how can you make it carry 20 liters? The answer might be that if you freeze the water, you can carry the extra 10 liters as an ice block on top of the bucket.

The officials at the European Union's Inter-Governmental Conference, or IGC, have few solutions on hand as simple as that. They are meeting through most of this year to agree on reforms to the EU's internal institutions, so that they can operate effectively during and after the expected eastward expansion.

One of the bodies which will have to change is the European Parliament, the democratic arm of the EU. It must be restructured to take in scores of elected deputies from up to 13 new members, mostly from Central and East Europe. The problem is that under a provision of the EU basic treaty, the total size of the parliament is limited to 700 seats, no matter how many new member states join.

As the present size is already 626 seats, that means there are only 74 places still vacant. Considering that under the present formula, Poland alone would be entitled to nearly all those spare seats, it's clear there must be a new way of sharing out the seats to all member countries, new and old.

As Laurence Auer, a spokeswoman in the European Commission, puts it:

"The whole IGC is a complicated negotiation; the topics relate to very sensitive issues crucial in terms of representation of the member states, and of course the number of members of parliament is important."

One of the constitutional puzzles is how to mesh the structural changes of the parliament with the expansion timetable. No one knows when, or even how many, first-wave candidates -- like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary -- will gain admission to the EU. They are hoping to be in by 2003, although EU officials indicate that 2005 is more likely.

Elections to the European Parliament, however, are scheduled for 2004 and 2009. Therefore, how many deputies should existing members be allowed to elect at those two elections, so as to leave space for an unknown number of newcomers?

Bear in mind that once elected, deputies will expect to serve a full 5-year term. For instance, Spanish or Swedish deputies elected to the parliament in 2004 will not give up their seats for incoming Slovaks or Estonians in say, 2005. That would be undemocratic and probably unconstitutional.

EU officials close to the IGC negotiations told RFE/RL that various formulas to cope with this are being considered. One idea is for a straight 20 to 25 percent cut in the number of seats allotted to present member states. Those cuts would be introduced either in two stages, or at a single stroke.

Another plan is to introduce a proportional system, distributing all seats according to members' populations. That plan has the drawback that big states like Germany would have hordes of deputies, and small states only one or two seats each.

Not surprisingly, the small states at the IGC view this plan less favorably than the big ones, as spokeswoman Auer explains:

"If you take, for instance, Luxembourg: At this stage Luxembourg has seven members of parliament, and if you change the number of members in the future, it will be to reduce them, because we have to limit ourselves to this number of 700, so of course it is a difficult issue."

For this reason, the smaller states want a set minimum number of seats -- for instance four or six -- reserved for each country, no matter how small.

The bargaining on all issues at the IGC is supposed to be finished by December, and the results presented to a summit of EU leaders in the French Riviera city of Nice. All the indications are that the going will be tough on many issues, and that the results will be unclear until member states finally put down their cards, probably in the last few weeks of the conference.