The European Union's summit in Nice last December made a series of decisions on institutional reform designed to open the path for future enlargement of the Union. But because of differences among member states, notably France and Germany, some of the reforms instituted arrangements that were more complicated than the old ones. Now a powerful group of deputies in the European Parliament is demanding far-reaching changes in the Nice treaty, to simplify it and make it fairer towards some of the incoming easterners. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.
Prague, 27 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union hopes to incorporate its first new members from Central and East Europe in 2004. With time pressing, the EU summit held in the French city of Nice last December created the institutional space necessary to accommodate the newcomers inside Union structures. But Nice was a hard-fought battle among the member states anxious to preserve their own relative positions, and as a result the reforms reached at the summit are viewed as flawed.
In the European Parliament, a large group of center-right deputies, led by the German CDU/CSU faction, are demanding major alterations to the Nice treaty, as well as extra seats in the parliament for the Czech Republic and Hungary. They say they will work to delay consideration of the treaty until member states commit themselves to changing it. A leader of the group, Elmar Brok of Germany, explains to RFE/RL:
"Several points [in the Nice treaty] do not help solve the problems of enlargement, especially in terms of having a better decision-making procedure: at Nice we actually got a worse decision-making procedure compared with the [previous] Amsterdam treaty, and that will make things difficult."
Brok points out that in Nice the EU approved a complex system for calculating a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers, the EU's decision-making body. He says such a complex system could lead to deadlock, and should be replaced by a simple double majority, meaning a majority of members states, holding a majority of the Union's population.
Brok's group also wants further restrictions on the use of the national veto and the extension of qualified majority voting (QMV) to many more areas relating to the internal market, competition, and social and tax policy.
The group also wants both the Czech Republic and Hungary to have two seats more in the European Parliament, which would give them a total of 12 each. Nice assigned those countries only 10 parliamentary seats, despite the fact that they have roughly the same number of inhabitants as Portugal and Belgium, which have 12. As Brok puts it:
"We believe the European Parliament can only have legitimacy if every country has a fair amount of seats."
Brok argues that, in view of the shortness of time, the changes his group wants could be incorporated directly into the accession treaties which each incoming new member must sign with the Union. The last thing he wants is to delay the enlargement process:
"The Parliament will stick to its [position] that there should be the first accession treaties signed at the end of 2002, so that the first [incoming] countries can take part in the European Parliament elections in 2004."
Brok asserts there is strong non-partisan support in the European Parliament for re-working the Nice treaty -- all the way from the greens to liberals and social democrats, and on to the conservatives.
Another European Parliament deputy with decided views on Nice is Dutch liberal Bob van den Bos. He told RFE/RL that Nice had failed in its objective of thorough reform. But still, he says:
"The package in Nice has been minimalist, but it has been sufficient to go along with the enlargement. But I expect that in five or ten years we will have to reform the institutions again, but then, on the basis of experience we have had of an enlarged Union. We cannot foresee now how an EU of 20 or 28 members will function."
Van den Bos thus favors evolution based on experience rather than the imposition of rigid patterns. For this reason he is strongly opposed to a German-backed plan for an intergovernmental conference (IGC) to determine which functions belong to the EU in Brussels, and which are to be retained by the individual member states.
The IGC, to be held in 2004 as the first new members join, is meant to resolve the vexing question of national sovereignty. That's also an issue of concern to the eastern newcomers, some of whom fear losing too much of their newly regained sovereignty to an outside authority. Van den Bos, however, sees dangers in the IGC approach:
"As soon as we start discussing the final goal of Europe, we know that we will never find a consensus, because opinions are too divergent. For example we have in the European Parliament British conservatives who are anti-Europe, and we have Italian and Dutch federalists, who are very much in favor of strengthening Europe, so I can't see how we could find common ground."
The end result, van den Bos believes, would be "disturbing." Instead he advocates a gradualist approach in which European integration is implemented gradually, as the need arises. He says the globalization of economies, communications, and transport as well as the growing scale of cross-border crime and environmental problems, will inevitably produce more EU-wide government.