The End is the beginning is the End

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

The Constitution lies on the table. Europe's leaders argue. Mathias Vaa dissects the debates and the sources of conflict.

On the 4th of October European governments kick off a new Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) in Rome, to complete and eventually endorse the draft Constitution produced by the Convention on the Future of Europe on the 10th of July.

Member States have differing aspirations regarding the scope of the IGC’s deliberations. France, Germany and Italy are very reluctant to open up the carefully crafted document that the Convention produced. The Italian government, who will be chairing the meetings, has already outlined a provisional eight point agenda to be covered in only eight separate meetings. However, Poland has vociferously disagreed with limiting discussions in any way, signalling in a run up procedural meeting to the IGC its entrenched opposition to a number of the Convention’s proposals. The Austrian and the Finnish government share this sentiment, arguing that none of the compromises reached in the Convention’s draft Constitution should be considered sacrosanct.

Full Circle

The Italians have publicly committed themselves to concluding the IGC by December, attracted by the symbolic prestige of having a new Treaty of Rome to companion the founding Treaty of March 1957. The December date will undoubtedly exert a psychological pressure on the participants and should help to narrow the scope of discussions to focus on the most important aspects of Union reform, namely its institutions and their leadership.

Unlike many other subject areas discussed in the Convention no Working Group was set up to specifically deliberate on the institutional configuration of the Union. This debate was left until the last few months: a compromise of sorts was only reached at the very end. This left many smaller states feeling disgruntled without fully resolving the tension between the British and Spanish hopes of a more ‘intergovernmental Europe’ - led by an appointed Chairman of the European Council - and that of the German and Benelux countries, envisioning a more central role for the Commission and its President.

Constitutional Logic vs. Short-term Self-interest?

It is highly probable that the institutional debate will dominate the IGC, dominated by national concerns and self-interest. Poland and Spain personify this, repeatedly expressing their demands for retaining the opaque weighted voting system which operates in the Council of Ministers, in accordance with the Treaty of Nice. The system proposed in the draft Constitution would make voting more understandable to the public, with a majority constituting a simple majority of member states and three fifths of the populations of Europe. One should expect such instances of self-interest to manifest themselves in most discussions at the expense of more substantive issues such as democracy, constitutional clarity and simplicity.

This is particularly the case with the reform of the Commission. The draft Constitution provides for a two tier Commission, whereby only 15 European Commissioners will have full voting rights, accompanied by a group of Commissioners who will supplement the Commissioners work, but without being able to vote. Small member states have expressed their unease with this proposal. Despite constitutional assurances that the full-time Commissioners would be selected on an equal rotational basis, the smaller states worry that somehow this arrangement will prejudice their interests in the long run. The Commission, in its recent proposal to the IGC, has also expressed its desire to retain the principle of one Commissioner per Member State. Without it, the Commission feels, its authority will be weakened, with those countries lacking a Commissioner being less inclined to abide by and respect the Commission’s decisions. Arguably this could eventually undermine the institution’s pivotal position in the Union policy making process.

Unfortunately, both fears are based on the misguided notion that the Commission should aspire to be a representative institution. The Council of Ministers is the embodiment of the will of the Member States and the European Parliament is the embodiment of the will of the peoples of Europe. As the Union’s principal executive, the Commission’s primary function is to give effect to the general European interest. To ensure this, the Treaties have continuously stressed the independence of Commissioners from various sectional or national interests, even providing for their dismissal if it is believed that they have acted on that basis. With this in mind, it seems illogical and unnecessary for member states to express such entrenched opposition to the draft Constitution’s proposals. It is unclear what they stand to lose, unless they expect individual Commissioners to act on their behalf, even though this has always been expressly prohibited.

This paranoia of ensuring the equality of representation has unfortunately also manifested itself in reforming the leadership of the various Council formations. The system whereby all Council formations were held on a 6 monthly rotational basis by one individual member state was considered flawed and unsustainable in a Union of 25. Instead, individual Council formations (with the exception of the Foreign Affairs Council) will be held by Member States on the basis of equal rotation for at least one year. It is unclear who will chair the General Affairs Council, but it seems apparent that this overall configuration may engender serious co-ordination problems, inhibiting the ability to provide a strategic impulse to the Council’s work as a whole.

Instead, a more optimal arrangement would have had the individual formations with executive functions being chaired by the Commissioners responsible for the policy area in question. This would have introduced greater continuity into the Council’s work, while individual member states could have continued to share, on an equal rotational basis, the Chairmanship of a Council formation solely dedicated to Legislative affairs. The latter proposal, spearheaded by the former Italian Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, was significantly watered down in the Convention by many member state governments, worried that this would be the first step in converting the Council to a European Senate. Similarly, proposals to have the Commissioners chair any Council formations, were too close to national sensitivities, with individual member states reluctant to let go of some ongoing Council involvement, despite the constitutional logic and sensibility of drawing together the Union’s bifurcated executive.

Rational Expectations, Irrational Exuberance

Given present disagreements over the existing proposals and the barrier that securing unanimity among 25 countries inevitably imposes, bold reforms will be unlikely. It is realistic to expect that the principle of one Commissioner per Member State will be incorporated in the draft Constitution and that the reform of the Council of Ministers will be limited, despite the plethora of actors that it will produce. What remains less clear, and most important, is what the job description of the Chairman of the European Council will ultimately be. The British are intent on ensuring that the Chairman also chairs the General Affairs Council, whose primary function is to co-ordinate the work of the other Council formations. Although resolving the concerns about the lack of strategic oversight in the Council, it has been repeatedly voiced that this will lead to the build-up of a rival Council bureaucracy, which will duplicate to some extent the Commission’s work and institutionalise a degree of rivalry on an unprecedented level between the two institutions. Many of the smaller member states will resist this, considering the Commission the institution which best guards their interests. Instead they will endeavour to circumscribe the role of the Chairman, providing him with the primary task of guiding the Union’s strategic work, rather than dealing with the day-to-day running of the Union.

There are grounds for optimism that on this point: Germany and common sense will prevail. Most small member states only grudgingly accepted the creation of a permanent Chairman of the European Council, provided his functions were clearly defined so as not to rival the Commission President. In the long run we can hope for the merger of the positions of Commission President and the European Council Chair, enabling one individual to exercise comprehensive leadership at Union level. In the meantime, we should consider the formulation of a workable and simpler, by the standard of its predecessors, Constitution, to be a remarkable success.