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EU: Smaller Member States Criticizing Reform Proposals

A plan for the makeup of the European Union after enlargement has come under heavy fire from the EU's smaller member states who fear a loss of influence if the proposals are adopted as they stand. The group set up to recommend the changes -- the Convention on the Future of Europe -- debated the proposals this week in Brussels, RFE/RL reports.

Brussels, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At its most basic, the debate on the shape of the EU's institutions after enlargement comes down to a split between larger and smaller member states.

The bloc's larger powers mostly support the efforts of the chair of the Convention of the Future of Europe -- former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing -- to set up what could amount to a centralized government for the EU. Although the initial plan has been toned down, what remains would eliminate the present system of rotating the EU presidency half-yearly between all member states. Instead, says Giscard, the office of a permanent president is necessary to ensure "stability" in decision-making.

The EU's smaller member states have gone into open revolt, although their motivations differ. Many of them are concerned about losing influence. A minority -- Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands -- argues that federalism is acceptable, but not if run by the larger member states

The proposal on the table now largely bypasses the EU's existing institutions to boost the powers of the bloc's Council of Ministers, which represents member state governments. It envisages a permanent "president" for the council, together with a "foreign minister," and suggests setting up a "bureau" of prime ministers to coordinate long-term work. Giscard also argues for an annual "European Congress" meeting of deputies of the European Parliament and national assemblies.

Although a clear majority of the 105-member convention opposes the plan, its hands are tied as the convention does not vote on its decisions. Instead, its chair -- Giscard -- ends each session with a summary of what he takes to be the general feeling.

The frustration spreading among rank-and-file deputies was exemplified by Finnish left-of-center deputy Kimmo Kiljunen, when he resorted to ridicule. "I hope we are not aiming to create a superpower Europe, for that purpose I hope we will not copy other existing models, there is that danger. I say it partly jokingly, [but] we are aiming to copy the institutions of the president of the United States, the People's Congress of China, and the Politburo of the former USSR," Kiljunen said.

The 77-year-old Giscard chose to ignore that particular barb, together with a few others suggesting the chair of the convention is about to lose the confidence of its deputies.

However, he was unable or unwilling to meet criticism head-on. In his opening remarks, Giscard attempted to circumvent criticism by arguing in general terms that his plan would strengthen all three sides of the EU's institutional triangle -- the Council of Ministers, the European Commission with its executive powers, and the European Parliament. Yet, the European Commission yesterday expressed its "strong reservations" vis-a-vis most basic elements of the proposals. Elmar Brok, head of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, has described the Giscard plan as "autistic."

Giscard received general support yesterday from the various French representatives, and is also known to enjoy the backing of the British government. Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, traditionally a supporter of the European Commission and Parliament, did not commit himself yesterday.

About 20 current and future member states met yesterday morning and nominated Greece's representative George Katiforis to speak for them. Katiforis relayed their concerns, but offered no pointers as to what action might be taken if the situation does not improve.

"They [the smaller member states] felt the conditions created were not very proper on this particular occasion to help this procedure. The leak to the press [prior to the presentation of the Giscard plan to the Convention] upset them very much, they felt that their views as states in Athens [at last week's EU summit] have not been echoed enough in your proposals, they also felt very much worried by the suggestion that the consensus will not be what it used to be, but could be a demographic definition which could be made up by three or four bigger states of the Union," Katiforis said.

Katiforis's intervention is all the more remarkable for the fact that Greece runs the EU's current presidency and is usually obliged to maintain neutrality in bloc-wide disputes.

There is a growing feeling among convention delegates that unless the Giscard proposals are brought into line with the expectations of the smaller member states, the convention's work could be undermined. Instead of commanding indisputable moral authority, the convention's draft constitution for the EU -- to be presented to the member states at the Thessaloniki summit in June -- risks being rewritten in the ensuing "Intergovernmental Conference" of EU member states which will need to endorse it.