Commission sets out proposals for IGC
On 26 January 2000, the European Commission presented its opinion on the areas of institutional reform which will be covered by the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference. The Commission's suggestions concerning the extension of qualified majority voting would have a considerable impact on decision-making in the area of social policy. Other proposals cover the reform of the European Parliament, the Commission and the voting procedure in the Council of Ministers.
The European Commission's opinion on the forthcoming revision of the Treaties – entitled Adapting the institutions to make a success of enlargement– was presented on 26 January 2000 by Commission President Romano Prodi and Michel Barnier, the Commissioner with special responsibility for the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). This opinion represents a follow-up to the discussions held at the December 1999 Helsinki European Council (EU0001219N) and was drawn up under Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) which requires the Commission to give its opinion prior to any institutional reform.
The issue of institutional reform is becoming increasingly pressing, as negotiations with countries applying to join the EU progress and negotiations with new applicant countries begin. The previous IGC culminated in June 1997 (EU9707135F) in the conclusion of the Treaty of Amsterdam which, although it introduced a variety of changes such as the extension of the co-decision procedure and some extension of qualified majority voting, was widely held to have fudged the key issues of institutional reform. Without changes in the way the EU institutions work and in particular the way in which decisions are made, it is feared that the EU decision-making process could grind to a halt under the weight of up to 28 individual Member States.
Since the signing of the Amsterdam Treaty, a variety of discussions have taken place concerning the potential framework of the next IGC. At the June 1999 Cologne European Council (EU9906180N), a commitment was made to convene a further IGC in early 2000, following the presentation of a Presidency report on this subject for the December 1999 Helsinki Council. The Finnish Presidency's report, Effective institutions following enlargement – Suggestions for the Intergovernmental Conference, decided that the next IGC would be convened in February 2000, would last 11 months and would examine:
- the size and composition of the Commission;
- the weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers; and
- any other "necessary amendments" to the Treaties arising as regards the European institutions in connection with the above issues and in implementing the Treaty of Amsterdam.
In accordance with Article 48 of the TEU, the Commission and the European Parliament (EP) was asked by the Council to give an opinion on "the convening of a conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States with a view to amending the Treaties".
Reform of the institutions
The Commission stresses that the IGC is not seeking to alter the role or powers of the institutions. With regard to the EP, it proposes retaining the upper limit of 700 on the number of members of the EP, a limit which was set by the Amsterdam Treaty. It notes further that any new arrangement for seat allocation following enlargement should be proposed by the EP itself, but makes some suggestions, such as ensuring that each Member State is entitled to a minimum level of representation. It also suggests that the current formula used to determine the composition of the EP be re-examined and that some MEP s should be elected on the basis of European lists, presented to all voters in the EU.
Once all of the 13 current applicant countries have joined the EU, under the present system (two Commissioners for large countries and one for small countries), the Commission would rise to 35 members. The Commission notes that the key issue here is to decide whether the Commission will be made up of one national from each Member State, or whether alternative arrangements can be made. It suggests two options.
Under the first solution, the number of Commissioners would be restricted to its present total of 20. This would mean that not all Member States would have a Commissioner, but a system of rotation could be introduced which would treat all Member States equally and ensure that the Commission is balanced both from a geographical and relative country-size point of view. Under such a system, with 28 Member States, each Member State would be able to propose a Commissioner for five out of seven Commissions and no nationality would be absent for two successive terms of office.
Under the second solution, the Commission would be made up of one national from each Member State, but the Commission would need to be restructured in order to make this feasible. Possible restructuring options include: increasing the Commission President's power to allocate portfolios and to direct policy; asking some Commissioners to coordinate the work of other colleagues, for example increasing the number of Vice Presidents; and allowing Commissioners to take decisions relating to daily management.
Economic and Social Committee and Committee of the Regions
The Commission states that the role of theEconomic and Social Committee (ESC) should be re-examined due to the fact that the situation, particularly of the EP (whose consultative role the ESC was originally set up in order to complement), has now changed. In particular, the Commission feels that the ESC should be more representative of EU civil society and that the distribution of its seats should be re-examined. In addition, the Commission proposes that the ESC should be allowed to judge for itself whether it should issue opinions on legislative matters, and that the number of ESC members should be frozen at its current level – 222 members, each serving a four-year term.
The Commission proposes that the number of seats allocated to Member States on theCommittee of the Regions (CoR), which was set up by the Maastricht Treaty, should be reviewed. It suggests that its composition should be determined in the same way as for the EP and that the CoR's membership total should be limited to one-third of the number of MEPs.
Streamlining the decision-making process
The Commission states that, given the current enlargement process, the EU will become less homogeneous: "the economic, cultural and political differences between the Member States will be more pronounced than ever before in the history of European integration." In order to preserve the efficacy of decision-making, certain steps need to be taken. First, it suggests that unanimity should be required only when there are "serious and lasting reasons for doing so" and therefore than qualified majority voting become the general rule for decision-making in the Council. It proposes a total of five categories where it considers that unanimity should still apply:
- Council decisions which must be adopted by the Member States in accordance with their constitutional rules;
- essential institutional decisions and decisions affected the institutional balance, such as those based on Article 290 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC), concerning the language of the institutions;
- decisions in the fields of tax and social security which are not related to the proper functioning of the internal market;
- parallel internal and external decisions, based on Article 300 of the TEC, which provides for concordance between the type of majority applicable to internal legal bases and the decision-making procedure for the conclusion of international agreements; and
- derogations from common Treaty rules.
If the principle of installing qualified majority voting as the general rule for decision-making is adopted, this would have significant consequences for decision-making in the fields of social and employment policy. The Commission lists the areas which are currently subject to unanimity but would, under these proposals, in future be covered by qualified majority voting. The areas relevant to social policy are:
- all anti-discrimination measures based on Article 13 of the TEC;
- all measures in the social policy field, based on Article 137(3) and 139(2) of the TEC, unless the provisions relating to social security are redrafted;
- measures based on Article 18 of the TEC, designed to facilitate the exercise of rights to move and reside freely in the EU;
- measures based on Article 42 of the TEC, concerning the coordination of legislation on social security for workers; and
- measures based on Article 47(2) of the TEC, concerning the taking up of activities as a freelance.
The Commission also proposes extending the scope of the co-decision procedure, establishing a link between qualified majority voting and codecision. Again, this would mean some change for decision-making in the area of social policy. The measures affected would be those based on Article 13, Article 137(3) and Article 139(2) of the TEC.
The Commission also suggests eliminating the cooperation procedure, which was the forerunner of the co-decision procedure and largely replaced by this latter procedure by the Amsterdam Treaty.
The qualified majority in the Council
The current system of qualified majority voting in the Council reflects the population of the Member States, but includes a heavy correction for less populous Member States in order to be able to take into account the individuality of each country. The qualified majority threshold the (minimum number of votes required as a percentage of the total) is, and always has been, just above 70%. This has been preserved following all the enlargements of the Community to date, but the Commission notes that with an enlarged EU of up to 28 Member States, and particularly as most of the applicant countries have small populations, a simpler system which reflects the relative weight of the Member States needs to be established. A reweighting of the votes in the Council would be one option. This would consist of altering the number of votes given to each Council member, in addition to altering the threshold (the minimum number of votes expressed as a percentage of the total) required for a decision.
However, while seeing the merits of this, the Commission notes that this would be complex, and would prefer the introduction of a "double simple majority", whereby a decision would be adopted if it had the support of a simple majority of Member States, representing a simple majority of the total population of the Union. It feels that this system would be both simpler and more transparent than a modification of qualified majority voting.
Finally, the Commission notes that the EU should give itself the option of further integration. Given that an enlarged EU will mean even greater diversity amongst its members, it believes that the current requirement setting the minimum number of Member States wishing to pursue closer cooperation at half the total number of Member States (ie currently a minimum of eight Member States) should be revised, and suggests altering this to a minimum of one third. Further, it suggests abolishing the right of Member States to request a unanimous decision in the Council if it is opposed to the decision of a qualified majority of Member States to seek closer cooperation.
This document represents the "wish-list" of the Commission in all the key areas of institutional reform which need to be addressed in the medium term. It makes a number of important suggestions to the forthcoming IGC which, if implemented, will no doubt greatly contribute to the smooth running of the EU during its current phase of enlargement.
A number of these proposed reforms have direct relevance for social policy. The potentially most far-reaching proposal is to introduce qualified majority voting in areas currently subject to unanimity. Although many areas of social policy are now subject to qualified majority voting, following the procedures introduced by the Maastricht Treaty in the form of the Agreement on Social Policy (which has since been incorporated into the main text of the Amsterdam Treaty), the further extension of qualified majority voting would have a considerable impact on the progression of social policy proposals. This is particularly so in the case of proposals based on Article 13, which is a new legal base introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty and which at the time was criticised for being subject to unanimity. If the Commission's proposals are implemented, this legal base will become subject to qualified majority voting, not much more than 18 months after the Amsterdam Treaty came into force.
Similarly, proposals to extend qualified majority voting to proposals based on Article 137(3) would have a significant impact – this Article encompasses proposals related to: social security and social protection of workers (unless the provisions relating to social security are redrafted); protection of workers concerning the termination of their employment contract; representation and collective defence of the interest of workers and employers; conditions of employment for third-country nationals; and financial contributions for the promotion of employment and job creation. Qualified majority voting would also be extended to measures based on Article 139(2), which is the legal basis for social partner agreements in the area of the above-mentioned subjects. This extension of qualified majority voting would essentially mean that there would be no significant social policy areas which remained subject to unanimity, potentially speeding up decision-making in the area of social policy.
The IGC is to begin its work in February 2000, with the aim of concluding by the end of the year. (Andrea Broughton, IRS).