New clauses may cut pressure to abolish national vetoes

 

European Diary: Almost a month after an Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) was launched to negotiate a constitutional treaty for the EU, foreign ministers were still outlining their opening demands in Brussels yesterday, writes Denis Staunton.

The Italian presidency has drawn up a list of more than 80 issues, not including the big questions about the future of EU institutions, which remain to be agreed before the IGC ends in December.

Many of the most sensitive issues concern proposals to abolish the national veto in policy areas that have until now required unanimity in the Council of Ministers. Ireland is resisting a proposal to introduce qualified majority voting in a small number of tax issues and on rules of criminal procedure. Other countries are seeking to retain the veto in different policy areas, while the Commission, with the support of some of the EU's founding members, wants to extend qualified majority voting further than what the draft treaty proposes.

The pressure to abolish national vetoes could be diminished by the inclusion in the draft treaty of "passarelles", or enabling clauses, which would allow EU leaders, acting unanimously, to change the voting requirement on some issues. Article I-24, Paragraph 4, states: "Where the Constitution provides in Part III for the Council of Ministers to act unanimously in a given area, the European Council can adopt, on its own initiative and by unanimity, a European decision allowing the Council of Ministers to act by qualified majority in that area..."

The proposal's supporters view the passarelle as an important mechanism to introduce flexibility. They hope the clause will make it easier to secure agreement in the current negotiations, while keeping hope alive for integrationists.

The Government has yet to adopt a formal position on the proposal but the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, said yesterday he had some reservations about its drafting.

Finland told the presidency last week it wanted the clause dropped. It said: "While such a solution would no doubt bring advantages in terms of flexibility, it would have the disadvantage of leaving the content of the Constitutional Treaty open in questions where use has been made of a passarelle. Moreover, the passarelles, by substituting the Inter-Governmental Conference and ratification by national parliaments for a decision by the European Council, fundamentally change the nature of the treaty's revision procedure. Finland takes the view that a decision to move to the ordinary legislative procedure or qualified majority voting should ultimately remain a matter for national parliaments and, therefore, proposes Article I-24, paragraph 4, to be deleted."

In Ireland's case, the introduction of the passarelle would mean the Government would no longer be required to hold a referendum each time the scope of qualified majority voting was extended, as long as such a decision was supported by all EU leaders.

Critics fear the clause could mean that a treaty designed to bring the EU closer to its citizens might in fact reduce the level of democratic control over the Union's activities.

The draft treaty includes a protocol for involving national parliaments in the EU's decision-making process but, although parliaments would have to be informed in advance of proposals to extend qualified majority voting, they would not be able to block them.

The Commission wants to go further than the draft treaty by allowing EU leaders to agree other changes to the treaty by a five-sixths majority. Commission officials fear that an enlarged Union could be paralysed by the need for ratification of even the most trivial treaty changes in all member-states.

There is little doubt, however, that once the possibility of changing the treaty without ratification became available, it would be used for more important issues. Officials admit privately that the IGC is unlikely to agree to allowing a majority of member-states to decide on such changes but they hope to persuade governments to adopt the principle of flexible treaty revision.