IGC launched as governments take position on qualified majority voting
The Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on institutional reform, which aims to negotiate a definitive set of reforms for the European Union's institutions prior to enlargement, was launched on 14 February 2000. While the European Parliament and the European Commission have called for the extension of qualified majority voting to more areas of decision-making - including many social policy issues - this move is being resisted by some Member State governments.
On 14 February 2000, the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), designed to prepare the European Union's institutions for enlargement (EU0001225F), was formally launched by Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission.
Mr Prodi reiterated his stance that there would be "no room for a second IGC" and that the reforms to be decided by the end of 2000 and approved by the Nice European Council in December 2000 must represent a definitive statement on the way ahead. In particular, he raised the issue of the reform of decision-making through the extension of qualified majority voting: "We cannot expand from 15 to 28 members simply by patching things up. Decisive solutions must be found, otherwise the Union can only get weaker ... I genuinely believe that, with 28 members, any areas that are still decided by unanimity will be condemned to stagnation."
In February 2000, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the convening of the IGC (14094/1999 – C5-0341/1999 – 1999/0825) stating that it considers the IGC to be "essential" and "stresses the need for transparency in the working methods of the IGC so that citizens of the Union may be informed about the progress of work and the major decisions taken by the conference".
At the launch of the IGC, the President of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, stated that she expected "boldness" from the process and also referred to the issue of decision-making. Ms Fontaine stated that the IGC should extend qualified majority voting to "almost all legislative acts", as using the current system might "condemn the Union to paralysis or expose it to unacceptable blackmail by states threatening to employ their veto."
Dispute over qualified majority voting
However, the calls for the extension of qualified majority voting (QMV) have reportedly split Member State governments into two camps. According to a report in European Voice (17-23 February 2000), countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands are in favour of a "massive extension" of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, while countries including Austria, Finland, Spain and Sweden are opposed.
The current Portuguese EU Presidency supports the position of the former camp and has issued a paper suggesting the extension of QMV to many new areas, including single market legislation, the planning and implementation of EU budgets, certain areas of foreign policy and some decisions in the justice and home affairs fields, in line with the Commission's proposals in this area, issued in a recent Communication (EU0001225F). In the area of social and employment affairs, the following areas could be covered by QMV.
- Anti-discrimination measures based on Article 13 of the European Community Treaty (TEC).
- The measures under Article 137(3) and 139(2) of the TEC which are currently subject to unanimity, relating to: social security and the social protection of workers; protection of workers when their employment contract is terminated; representation and collective defence of the interests of workers and employers; conditions of employment for third-country nationals residing in Community territory; and financial contributions for promotion of employment and job-creation.
- Measures on the freedom of movement and residence, under Article 18 of the TEC.
- Provisions relating to the coordination of legislation on social security to provide freedom of movement for workers, under Article 42 of the TEC.
- Measures designed to facilitate self-employment for workers through the mutual recognition of formal qualifications, under Article 47 of the TEC.
However, the IGC debates on the issue of QMV extension are expected to be difficult and the Portuguese Presidency reportedly believes that a third of the 75 Articles of the Treaty where unanimity currently applies will probably remain unchanged at the end of the IGC.
Agenda for reform
The Preparatory Group of the IGC, which is composed of Member States' Permanent Representatives to the EU, began its work on 15 February in Brussels, with further meetings under the Portuguese Presidency scheduled to take place on 25 February, 7 and 28 March, 14-15 April, 2, 16 and 30 May and 6 June 2000. Meetings at ministerial level will take place on 20 March, 10 April, 5 and 22 May and 23 June 2000. The Portuguese government hopes that by the end of its Presidency, it will be able to pass some tangible results on to the French Presidency – which runs from July to December 2000 – representing as accurately as possible the direction in which Member States are moving.
The Portuguese Presidency has divided the work of the Preparatory Group, into two phases:
- the first phase will consider the issue of QMV, followed by institutional reform matters relating to issues not dealt with at the previous IGC, which culminated in the Treaty of Amsterdam (EU9707135F). Work would then move on to the question of the reform of the Commission and weighting of votes; and
- the second phase, during the final stage of the negotiations, would re-examine the above issues in an attempt to identify new issues that might emerge.
Although the IGC has now been formally launched, the road to reform does not look smooth. The dispute over the use of QMV in decision-making within the Council of Ministers was always likely to be the thorniest issue to resolve as it strikes at the heart of the issue of most concern to Member State governments – national sovereignty.
Opponents of the proposals to take more decisions on the basis of QMV believe that this will remove the democratic power of Member State governments to act in the interests of their electorates and to veto moves which run counter to their interests. However, proponents state that maintaining the status quo can no longer be seen as a viable option if the EU is to expand to include up to 28 Member States – taking decisions on the basis of unanimity between a potential 28 governments would put the policy-making machinery of the EU in danger of grinding to a halt.
If the QMV process is extended to the social policy areas proposed, this could make a real difference in terms of progression of social policy initiatives. In particular, it would ensure a smoother passage for Article 13 proposals, including the Commission's current anti-discrimination draft Directives (EU9912318F).
If Member State governments cannot reach a compromise during the negotiation process over the next nine months, it may be the case that the issue will not be resolved until the European Council meets in Nice in December 2000, thus leaving the final decision on voting reform to the heads of governments. In the interim, it appears that the debate over QMV will rumble on (Neil Bentley, IRS).