The Treaty of Nice, the agreement which sets out changes in the EU’s rules to pave the way for enlargement, went into effect on 1 February.
The details of the treaty were agreed in December 2000, the treaty was signed on 26 February 2001 and since then it has been ratified by every EU Member State. Ireland was last to deposit its instrument of ratification in December 2002.
The treaty, described by Commission President Romano Prodi as a step toward a historic change, increases the size and powers of both the European Parliament and the Commission. After the Union's enlargement scheduled for 1 May 2004, the number of seats in the European Parliament will increase from 626 to 732, and the treaty specifies a new division of seats per Member State.
The new rules for the Commission will enter into force on 1 November 2004 only. After that date, places on the EU's executive body will be limited to one per Member State. This will mean the five biggest countries - Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain - losing their second seats. Once the number of EU members reaches 27, there will be less Commissioners than Member States.
The President of the Commission will receive increased powers. He or she will be entitled to decide on the Commission's internal organisation, will allocate portfolios to Commissioners, will appoint vice-presidents after collective approval by the College, and may request a Commissioner to resign, subject to approval by the College.
The Nice Treaty also establishes a new system of voting in the Council of Ministers. It sets out the number of votes each Member State gets on all policy issues. This number will range from 29 for Germany, France, Italy and Britain to only three for Malta, the smallest of the enlargement states. Voting rules will also be changed in the Council to increase the scope of qualified majority voting against unanimity. The treaty also aims to streamline the functioning of the European Court of Justice.
While the Nice Treaty will allow the EU to function more effectively, it may soon be superseded by the Union's new Constitutional Treaty, which is being drafted by the Convention on the future of Europe.