Progress of the Intergovernmental Conference

1997 is to see the culmination of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) for the revision of the Treaties. This feature outlines the process and progress of the current IGC, as at April 1997, and the impact that proposed Treaty revisions are likely to have on industrial relations and employment and social policy.

Introduction

An Intergovernmental Conference is the method used by the Member States of the European Union (EU) to agree on basic changes to the Treaties which govern the workings of the Union. Changes to the Treaties are not carried out within the framework of the EU itself, but by direct negotiations between the governments of the Member States within the context of the IGC. The current IGC is the sixth in the history of European integration.

The need for a further review of the treaties, just four years after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union, comes about for a variety of reasons.

  1. The 1992 Treaty on European Union itself contains a number of requirements for reviews of the operation of policies and procedures to be initiated before the end of 1996.
  2. There are a number of urgent practical reasons for a review of the institutional arrangements of the EU. Currently a number of countries are involved in negotiations which they hope will lead to full membership of the Union. Whilst the current practical institutional arrangements - such as the number and distribution of members of the European Commission and the voting arrangements at Council of Ministers level - can just about cope with 15 Member States, there is widespread agreement that a thorough reform is necessary before the next phase of enlargement takes place. Such a reform requires fundamental changes to the Treaties.
  3. There are also a number of major political issues that need to be addressed. Many Member States believe that a further extension of qualified majority voting is necessary, as is the formal incorporation of the Agreement on Social Policy annexed to the Maastricht Treaty (which does not apply to the UK) within the main body of the Treaties. Equally, there is widespread support for key policy objectives in areas such as employment being incorporated into the formal framework of the Treaties. There is also agreement that changes need to be made to increase the openness and transparency of the EU, in order to make it more relevant to ordinary European citizens and more responsive to their concerns.

The IGC was formally opened in March 1996 and it is intended that it should complete its work by June 1997. For a variety of reasons, it is looking increasingly as though this deadline will not be achieved, and that it will be the end of 1997 before government leaders will be in a position to vote on draft treaty revisions. A certain amount of groundwork was undertaken before the first formal session of the IGC by a group known as the IGC Reflection Group. The Group suggested that the IGC should concentrate on finding solutions to three major problem areas:

  • making Europe more relevant to its citizens;
  • enabling the Union to work better and preparing it for enlargement; and
  • giving the Union greater capacity for external action.

The IGC met at regular intervals during much of 1996 and by the end of the year the country which then held the Council Presidency, Ireland, was in a position to submit a draft Treaty. This draft Treaty contains recommendations in five key areas:

  • creating an area of freedom, security and justice;
  • other issues affecting individual citizens;
  • external policy;
  • institutional changes; and
  • "flexibility" or "enhanced cooperation".

Whilst a fair degree of progress had been made in the first three of these areas, little had been agreed in relation to the latter two, and it is in these areas that discussions tended to concentrate upon during the early part of 1997.

The Intergovernmental Conference and industrial relations

A number of issues that are closely related to the development of industrial relations at European level and within Member States are currently being discussed within the context of the IGC.

Employment

The Irish draft Treaty suggests that the promotion of a high level of employment should be specified as a basic objective of the European Union and European Community. It also recommends the introduction of a new Title on employment into the Treaty. The provisions to be contained in this new Title include the following.

  • Member States and the Community shall work towards developing a common strategy for employment (Article 1).
  • Member States shall regard the promotion of employment as a matter of common concern and shall coordinate their actions in this respect within the Council (Article 2).
  • The Community shall contribute to a high level of employment by encouraging cooperation between Member States and by supporting and, as necessary, complementing their actions while respecting the competence of the Member States in this field (Article 3).
  • Each year the European Council will consider the employment situation in the Community and draw up guidelines which the Member States will take into account in their employment policies. Also each year Member States will submit an annual report on the principle measures taken to implement its employment policy, which will form the basis of a detailed assessment by the Council (Article 4).
  • The Council may adopt incentive measures in relation to employment acting on a qualified majority vote (Article 5).
  • The Council will establish an Employment Committee to monitor the employment situation in both the Member States and the Community (Article 6).

Social policy

The Irish draft Treaty suggests that there is considerable support within the IGC for developing the social provisions of the EC Treaty, notably by integrating the Agreement on Social Policy into the Treaty. However, it recognises that this view is currently strongly opposed by one delegation - the United Kingdom, and therefore the issue has been left to be dealt with during the latter stages of the IGC. In practical terms, this means that it will be left until after the UK general election on 1 May. Two of the three main UK political parties - the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats - have pledged to support the integration of the social policy Agreement into the main Treaty if the elected. The Conservative Party remain opposed to such a move.

Incorporation of the social policy Agreement would probably involve replacing the social provisions set out in Chapter 1 of Title VIII of the Treaty whilst ensuring that the substance of those provisions is maintained. The IGC is also likely to want to consider whether certain improvements of substance should be made to the social policy Agreement, for example in such areas as social exclusion.

Fundamental rights

The Irish Presidency in its draft Treaty attempts to reaffirm the basic principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in a number of ways:

  • establishing a procedure for determining the existence in a Member State of a serious and persistent breach of the above principles and allowing for the suspension of certain of the rights of the Member State in question;
  • incorporating a new article in the EC Treaty to clarify judicial control of respect for fundamental rights;
  • extending significantly the grounds on which action can be taken by the Community to prohibit discrimination; and
  • strengthening the Treaty with a view to ensuring respect for the principle of equality between men and women.

In terms of gender equality, a number of specific changes to the Treaty establishing the European Community are proposed (additions in italic script):

  • supplementing Article 2 of the Treaty as follows: "The Community shall ... promote ... a high level of employment and social protection, equality between men and women, the raising of the standard of living and quality of life, and economic and social cohesion and solidarity amongst Member States";
  • adding a new paragraph to Article 3 of the Treaty as follows: "In all the activities referred to in this Article, the Community shall aim to eliminate inequalities and to promote equality between men and women";
  • amending the first paragraph of Article 119 of the Treaty to read: "Each Member State shall during the first stage ensure and subsequently maintain the application of the principle that men and women shall receive equal pay for work of equal value"; and
  • adding to the end of Article 119 provisions to allow the Council, acting by a qualified majority, to adopt measures to ensure the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women.

Industrial relations policy will undoubtedly be affected by many other changes that are likely to result from the IGC, not least the inevitable changes in institutional arrangements that will be introduced. Any increase in the powers of the European Parliament are likely to lead to a greater emphasis on social policy and a more active role for the social partners.

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