Agreement reached on Constitutional Treaty

EU heads of state and ministers met in Brussels on 17-18 June 2004 for a European Council summit meeting and to discuss modifications to the draft Constitutional Treaty. Agreement was reached on the text of the Treaty, which seeks to ensure the smooth running of the enlarged Union of 25 Member States. As before, the draft Treaty incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which enshrines a number of labour and social rights for citizens.

Ministers from the EU Member States met on 17 and 18 June in the framework of the Intergovernmental Conference to discuss the draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. This text was drawn up by a specially-convened body - the European Convention- headed by the former French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The Convention issued its final draft text in June 2003 (EU0307204F), but EU heads of state failed to reach agreement on all aspects of it at the European Council meeting held in December 2003 (EU0312209F). For an overview of the main employment and social policy implications of the draft Treaty, see EU0308204F.

In June, however, ministers succeeded in reaching agreement on amendments to the Constitutional Treaty. The main institutional amendments, and those of relevance to social policy, are set out below.

The Commission

One of the key sticking points in debate over the future composition of the European Commission had been the number of Commissioners. It was felt that the present system, under which each Member State has one Commissioner and the larger countries have two, was too unwieldy in the enlarged EU of 25 Member States (following the accession of 10 new countries in May 2004). However, Member States were reluctant to give up their quota. The text agreed by ministers in June states that the first Commission appointed under the provisions of the new Treaty will consist of one Commissioner from each Member State. After this, however, the Commission will consist of a number of members corresponding to two-thirds of the number of Member States. These members will be selected on the basis of a system of equal rotation between the Member States. Given that the Commission will thus, in future, no long always include nationals of all Member States, the text says that the Commission should 'pay particular attention to the need to ensure full transparency in relations with all Member States'.

Qualified majority voting

Council voting rules was another area of contention, with Spain and Poland blocking the original plans for a new definition of a qualified majority at the December 2003 Council. However, ministers have now agreed the following procedures:

  • a qualified majority will be defined as at least 55% of the members of the Council, comprising at least 15 Council members and representing Member States comprising at least 65% of the population of the EU;
  • a blocking minority must include at least four Council members; and
  • however, if the Council is not acting on a proposal from the Commission or from the EU’s minister for foreign affairs, the qualified majority will be 72% of the members of the Council, representing Member States comprising at least 65% of the population of the EU. This is unlikely to be the case in the social policy field - it is more likely in areas such as economic and monetary policy, when the Council may act on a recommendation from the European Central Bank.

An agreed decision on the implementation of this system states that if Council members representing at least three-quarters of the level of the EU population or at least three-quarters of the number of Member States that is necessary to form a blocking minority indicate their opposition to the Council on a particular proposal, the Council will discuss the issue and try to reach a satisfactory solution to address the concerns raised.

The current system of qualified majority voting, as set out in the Treaty of Nice (EU0012288F), will apply until 31 October 2009. From 1 November 2009, the procedures outlined above will come into force.

Charter of Fundamental Rights

One particular focus of controversy in December 2003 and since then has been that status and content of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which sets out a range of basic labour, social and human rights for EU citizens. The Charter was incorporated into the text of the draft Constitutional Treaty.

Under the June agreement, the Charter remains part of the Treaty as before, with its provisions unchanged. However, ministers agreed three amendments relating to the interpretation of the Charter:

  1. an addition to the fifth paragraph of the preamble to the Charter. This paragraph already stated that the Charter will be interpreted by the courts of the EU and the Member States with regard to explanations prepared under the authority of the Praesidium of the Convention. A provision has been added, stating that these explanations will be updated under the responsibility of the Praesidium of the Convention;
  2. the addition of a new paragraph to Article II-52, which deals with the scope and interpretation of rights and principles. This new paragraph states that 'explanations drawn up as a way of providing guidance in the interpretation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights shall be given due regard by the courts of the Union and of the Member States'; and
  3. a declaration on the explanations relating to the Charter. It states that the Intergovernmental Conference takes note of the explanations relating to the Charter prepared and updated under the authority of the Praesidium of the Convention.

Thus, there is no substantive change to the provisions of the Charter and it remains incorporated into the draft Treaty as Chapter II of the text.

Enhanced cooperation

Ministers agreed a change to the procedures governing 'enhanced cooperation' between an agreed number of Member States. This essentially gives a group of Member States an opportunity to process more rapidly on a particular issue than the EU as a whole. These procedures have been amended to ensure that authorisation to proceed with enhanced cooperation will be subject to unanimous Council decision (Articles III 325 and 326). The Council may use qualified majority voting, if it decides unanimously to do so. Under this provision, a group of Member States may decide to progress proposals in most policy areas, including employment and social policy.

Economic and social policy conclusions of European Council

A European Council was also held on 17 and 18 June, discussing a range of issues, including social and employment policy.

Broad Economic Policy Guidelines and Employment Guidelines

According to its conclusions , the European Council endorsed a draft update of the Broad Economic Policy Guidelines and draft new employment guidelines and recommendations to the Member States (as discussed at the June 2004 employment and social Council - EU0406202F ). It also welcomed two major innovations in the EU economic and employment policy coordination processes in 2004: the integration of the 10 new Member States into the process; and the incorporation of the policy messages of the recent report of the Employment Task Force ( EU0312209F ) in the employment recommendations. The European Council stressed that Member States should ensure that both sets of guidelines and the employment recommendations are implemented 'fully and in a coherent manner' .

The Lisbon agenda

The European Council welcomed the progress made since its spring 2004 meeting ( EU0404205F ) on measures in pursuit of the social, economic and environmental goals set out by the 'Lisbon agenda' on social, economic and environmental reform. This agenda was agreed at the Council meeting held in Lisbon in March 2000 ( EU0004241F ) and has been followed up on an annual basis each spring ever since. The June 2004 Council stated that particular progress has been made in areas including: mobility of EU citizens, through legislation on recognition of professional qualifications, social security coordination, the Europass training initiative and the introduction of a European health insurance card; intellectual property rights; and infrastructural development, though decision on Trans-European Networks for transport and energy.

The European Council expressed its support for the proposed establishment of a European Gender Institute ( EU0406202F ) and invited the Commission to bring forward a specific proposal on this issue.

In general, the European Council called on the Council of Ministers and the Member States to engage in further efforts to 'close the delivery gap' in the implementation of the Lisbon strategy. It urged that work proceed quickly on a range of issues, including: better regulation in the EU; corporate governance; a proposed framework Directive on services; a White Paper on services of general interest; the REACH proposal on chemicals; and encouragement for the mobility of researchers.

As part of the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy, a high-level group will submit a report to the Commission on 1 November 2004.

Commentary

The agreement of EU heads of state and government on the final text of the Constitutional Treaty represents a significant step forwards and one that secures the future of the enlarged Union. Agreement on the composition of the Commission and the arrangements for qualified majority voting will, it is hoped, ensure smooth running of the EU’s policy-making and legislative procedures.

From a social policy point of view, the agreed text of the Treaty incorporates in its entirety the Charter of Fundamental Rights, giving it legal effort once the Treaty comes into force. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), while expressing reservations on some areas of the Treaty, has welcomed the integration of the Charter into the Treaty as 'two big steps forward'.

The Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), representing private sector employers, has also welcomed the agreement on the new Treaty. It states that this will: strengthen European competitiveness, adaptability to structural change and employment prospects; strengthen Europe’s economies and the potential of European Economic and Monetary Union; successfully enlarge the EU without any distortion of the internal market; and strengthen European’s economic power on the international stage. Philippe de Buck, the UNICE secretary general, commented: 'we have witnessed a very important step in the ongoing construction of the EU'. Nevertheless, UNICE regrets that ministers could not agree on the appointment of a new President of the Commission and hopes that this can be achieved before the end of the Irish Presidency of the Council, on 30 June 2004.

It should be remembered that the new Treaty must be ratified by all EU Member States before it can come into force. This is often a rather lengthy process, which can take up to 18 months. A referendum on acceptance will be required in some Member States, including the UK, where Prime Minister Tony Blair stated recently that a referendum on the Treaty would be held, in contrast to recent practice in this Member State. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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