Rome calling: Welcome to the battlefield

Article published on Oct. 6, 2003
community published
Article published on Oct. 6, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

While Europe’s diplomats are busy sharpening their knives, the Italian Presidency is preparing its three-month ‘tour de force’. Will our heroes manage to save Giscard’s draft Treaty?

On October 4th the Intergovernmental Conference, which will examine the draft Constitutional Treaty approved by the European Convention in July, will begin in Rome.

As everyone knows, the text that Valery Giscard D’Estaing delivered to the Italian EU Presidency on July 18th falls short of a federal State capable of leading an independent foreign policy, as many European citizens hoped. However, in addition to marking important progress in the strengthening of political integration between the countries of the old continent, this text provides the institutional framework to admit 10 new countries from Eastern Europe. The enlargement to the East, that at times seemed, unfairly, to be taken for granted, constitutes the most significant act of foreign policy that the European Union has taken in its history. The European Convention was launched in December 2001 in Laeken with the objective of preparing the European institutional structures for this historic event.

Will the text (approved ‘by consensus’ by the vast majority of the 105 members of the Convention) manage to make its way through the IGC’s Caudine Forks (1) in one piece? Let’s hope so. In fact, it is now widely acknowledged that, if negotiations were reopened at the IGC, the effect on the text approved by the Convention would certainly be negative; the Community aspects would be subsequently weakened to the benefit of the prerogatives of national governments (who in the IGC, unlike the Convention, are the undisputed leading men). A recent survey conducted by the Institute for International Affairs in Rome (Convention Watch, second issue), due to be published in the next few days on, reveals that almost all the governments of the countries participating in the IGC are ready to adopt the text that came out of the Convention in its present form. But, at the same time, they confirm that if negotiations had to be reopened, they would not hesitate to put forward their own demands on this or that point.

The Italian Presidency of the Union, which will co-ordinate the work of the Conference, has already announced that it, together with the other five founder nations (plus, surprisingly, the UK), will fight to keep Giscard’s draft as complete as possible. To help achieve this objective, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Franco Frattini, divulged that the IGC will adopt a method of 'constructive disagreement', in which, 'a discussion is opened on a theme only if a substitute proposal, and its remedial effect, can be presented at the same time'. In this way, you remove the chaos that would ensue if every country were to present their own ‘shopping list’ of national demands.

In preparation for the IGC, the Italian Presidency has launched a difficult diplomatic operation with Spain and Poland in order to defuse their opposition to the change in the ‘ponderous’ voting system in the Council. The two countries consider that they would be damaged by the new and simpler ‘double majority’ system (whereby a decision can be taken by a majority of Member States representing 50% or more of the total Union population) proposed by the Convention.

Poland also appears on the list of ‘rebellious’ countries with regard to overhauling the six-monthly Presidency of the Council and the new composition of the Commission: from 2009 the Commission will be made up of only 15 voting members with 10 to 15 other non-voting ‘junior commissioners’. In opposition to these two points, Prodi’s Commission has compressed the successions of all the ‘small countries’ with the exception of the Benelux. The smallest countries, many of which are new entrants, believe that these two solutions would damage them with respect to the ‘big’ countries.

The political position adopted by the Commission, which also proposes in its paper a further extension of qualified majority voting, more than having a concrete effect on the debate that will unfold at the IGC, clearly aims to counterbalance future ‘intergovernmentalist’ proposals that could ‘unexpectedly’ burst out during the course of the negotiations. As a matter of fact, some hypothesise that underneath this apparent initial calm, some diplomats are working towards muddying the waters. But perhaps that is unduly cynical…

Despite The Economist stating that the IGC should only last for the 15 minutes necessary to tear up the pages of Giscard’s new constitutional Treaty, the London brokers give varying odds for the survival for the Convention’s text. Let’s hope so, having witnessed the political conditions that have characterised the last few difficult months in Europe. Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that, even after the completion of enlargement, there will still be a long way to go.

(1) Translator’s note: ‘Caudine Forks’ – a reference to the mountainous location of the infamous Roman defeat at the hands of the Samnites in 321 BC. It was viewed as the worst defeat in Rome’s history.