Irish voters can influence EU decisions

Sat, Jul 4, 2009, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:WHAT DIFFERENCE does the European Council’s decision last December that all EU member states will retain the right to nominate a European commissioner make to the Lisbon Treaty?

This was a political decision, which will not alter the text. Instead it invokes a change inserted in the treaty during its renegotiation in 2007 following rejection of the previous constitutional treaty in the French and Dutch referendums of 2005. This change provides that as from November 1st, 2014, the commission is to have two- thirds the number of member states, unless the European Council, acting unanimously, decides to alter this.

The decision has now been taken; but it will only apply if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, in Ireland and elsewhere. Otherwise the Nice Treaty rules will apply from this year, providing that the number of commissioners be less that the number of member states. So if you think it a good thing that Ireland will retain an automatic right to nominate a commissioner you should vote for the treaty. If you vote No that right will be lost – and Yes campaigners understandably hint that Ireland would probably be among the first states not to have one.

Understanding these decisions is an instructive exercise in assessing how politics works in the EU system. The Nice debate pitched efficiency against legitimacy. Guaranteeing a commissioner for each state in an enlarged union would inevitably prejudice its collegiality and effectiveness, it was argued.

Finding real jobs for 30 or more commissioners would not be possible, especially if the commission’s legislative role diminished. Legitimacy and direct representation anyway flow from the council of ministers and the European Parliament rather than the commission.

The argument continued in the constitutional treaty negotiations of 2001-4 and then in the Lisbon Treaty negotiations of 2007. Still based predominantly on the idea of a smaller, more efficient commission, it concentrated on ensuring there would be strict equality of rotation on it between smaller and larger member states and that all states would be on it two-thirds of the time. The main argument about legitimacy concerned the weighting of qualified majority votes.

Irish governments have favoured full commission representation, but decided to accept the smaller one in the interests of securing an acceptable outcome. The issue became active in last year’s referendum campaign. The No side argued that accepting the treaty would automatically mean losing an Irish commissioner (neglecting to point out that this would also be the case under the Nice treaty rules which would then apply). Ministers frequently invoke the posters arguing this case and how influential they were with voters. Subsequent research confirmed it was an important issue.

In response to the treaty’s rejection last year, the Government sought and the other member states were willing to invoke the option to keep universal representation on the commission. That this option had been inserted during the Lisbon negotiations already betokened second thoughts about the desirability of a reduced commission by a number of member states, especially smaller ones. These were activated by the Irish result – and the December decision has been welcomed elsewhere, notably in Finland, Sweden, the Baltic states and in central Europe.

It is necessary to go back to the basic design of the system if we are to understand these arguments properly. The EU is quite distinctive in having an executive commission and a council of ministers using qualified majority voting. These were designed in tandem with one another in the 1950s precisely to go beyond the traditional balance of power and sovereignty that gave Europe two wars in the last century. They make the EU more than an international organisation but less than a state.

Frequently lost sight of in the arguments between efficiency and legitimacy is the commission’s mediating role between smaller and larger states. Its three main functions – to initiate legislation, implement decisions of the council of ministers and ensure treaty commitments are applied – are to be exercised on behalf of the EU as a whole. That institutional design provides a guarantee that those outvoted in the council of ministers have a neutral ally in ensuring rules are applied fairly.

The direct connection between an independent commission and a council of ministers taking majority decisions has been repeatedly emphasised by two former Irish commission officials, John Temple Lang and the late Eamonn Gallagher. In an incisive pamphlet published by the Institute for European Affairs in 1995 and in subsequent publications, they have argued that only this balance protects smaller states from being dominated by the largest ones.

They have insisted, too, that the overall legitimacy of the system requires the balance to be maintained. For this reason they argued it was essential that each member state retain the right to nominate a commissioner, and opposed the treaty changes.

The Irish vote last year and the subsequent decision to maintain universal membership if the treaty is ratified endorse their views. If their arguments are correct this represents an important modification of the treaty, even though its text is not changed.

Ireland’s political choices have therefore made a real difference, which has been widely welcomed in other smaller member states. Voters should bear this in mind next time.