No easy way out

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

No easy way out

The EU Convention is currently faced with concrete proposals put forward by the EU institutions. The European Council (in the form of the heads of state and government), the Commission and the Parliament are all trying to position themselves in the run-up to the re-distribution of power and to push through their particular interests. Members of parliament at both the national and the European level, who make up the largest group within the Convention, are calling for generally stronger parliamentary control over European decision-making processes.

The suggestion made by some heads of government that the EU should be represented by a European Council president and the recent Communication from the Commission both reflect concern over a possible loss of influence. In the Communication, the proposal to strengthen cooperation among the nation states is countered by demands that the Commission be given central influence over the common foreign and security policy, coordination of economic policies and justice and home affairs, i.e. that its executive powers be extended markedly. The Convention will find it hard to reconcile conflicting interests in a draft which ensures an efficient distribution of power and a stable equilibrium of power among the European institutions and – something which should not be forgotten – which will have the support of the majority of heads of state and government at the decisive Intergovernmental Conference.

It is still an open question whether and how the Convention will be able to support its proposals with the necessary content and a political majority. In purely technical terms, it is proving difficult to coordinate the content of the more than 50 questions put to the Convention in the “Laeken Declaration” and to avoid repetitions in the debate. The six working groups convened by the presidium may help to bundle the competencies in the Convention and improve their focus on the questions asked. There is a danger that more precious time will be spent on dealing with procedural issues. For instance, the appointment of the chairmen of the working groups by members of the presidium turned out to be a sensitive political issue. Also, since there is no predetermined voting system in the Convention, it is still an open question how the proposals from the working groups should be weighted in the plenary session of the Convention and transformed into the Convention’s own positions. It is obvious that the Convention must develop a clearer profile in order to hold its own in the debate with the established and politically experienced EU institutions. As presentation of the proposals is planned for mid-2003, the time frame is very tight.

For this reason, it is all the more important that the European Council summit in Seville on June 21 and 22, marking the end of Spain’s EU presidency, points out the direction for the future. The heads of state and government must make it quite clear whether they seek a strengthening of community procedures or an even stronger focus on intergovernmental cooperation. The initiative by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, who in a joint letter at the beginning of the year pointed out to their European counterparts the urgent need for reform of the European Council, rightly highlights the institution that has the least transparent decision-making process but also the best track record of stability in its fifty-year history of preventing and solving conflicts. Up to now, it has been the European Council which has driven integration and development in the European Union. Which institution will be able to achieve this in an enlarged and very heterogeneous Union? What scope is there to integrate the Commission more strongly in a responsibility for government at the European level?

If – as described by the Germany Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, against the backdrop of the recent elections in France and the Netherlands – there was a danger that the EU was moving towards a renationalisation of policy, the Union – under the given circumstances – would be almost powerless and at the mercy of this development. If, in such an environment, the European Commision’s position were to be strengthened under the control of a more powerful European Parliament, the “Brussels bureaucracy” could increasingly become a scapegoat and serve as an argument supporting nationalistic efforts. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, chairman of the Convention, made precisely this point by saying that Europe’s citizens had no problem understanding the EU but a problem having confidence in it. In the final analysis, the citizens of the member states do not know all the details of interaction among democratically elected institutions in their respective countries but trust in an equilibrium of power and elections as a corrective, where as they have insufficient confidence at the European level. Above all, however, the political parties and personalities making up national governments are better known to voters and more easily presented by the media.

The new British-French initiative to appoint a European Council president who could become the “face” of the EU for several years, above all in the area of the joint foreign and security policy, reflects the need to reform the current rotating, six-month presidency and make the system more efficient. But this would also imply weakening the position of the Commission, which claims the job for itself, arguing that an efficient and coherent foreign policy should be shaped by the institution that also has the right to initiate action and that coordinates political action in different areas.

Recent surveys have confirmed that most EU citizens support joint action, particularly in foreign and security policy. The idea of appointing a trusted European personality to such an EU post is undoubtedly a logical conclusion.

Maybe the British-French initiative and repeated calls for reform of the Council of Ministers will lead to the establishment of a second chamber for the European Parliament? Led by a small presidium, this chamber representing the member states could be responsible, first and foremost, for the EU’s external relations. Furthermore, the member states’ representatives could support their national ministries and parliaments in monitoring the Commission’s initiatives with regard to compliance with the principle of subsidiarity. These initiatives would primarily be concerned with the further development of the single market as well as with justice and home affairs. Together with the European Parliament the second chamber would elect the members of the European Commission and take an equal part in legislative decision-making.

For in-depth analysis on this topic, see the full analysis by Deutsche Bank

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