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European Constitutional Convention and the IGC

On October 4, 2003, the European Union will convene an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in Rome. The IGC’s primary purpose will be to produce a constitutional treaty. The IGC and the constitutional convention which preceded it have been compared to America’s own constitutional convention in 1787. In many ways, the issues at stake at the IGC are no less profound than those which confronted the founding fathers of the United States of America: the creation of a governmental structure that balances the need for democratic legitimacy and transparency with the requirement of efficient and effective decisionmaking processes. The choice facing the IGC will be to decide the final shape of the EU.

The timing of the IGC is critical. In 2004, the EU will welcome ten new members. Their accession will strain an institution already taxed by inefficient, opaque, and often undemocratic processes. New members will also test the EU’s ability to make policy in nascent areas such as harmonization of criminal policies and foreign and security policy. These areas currently require unanimity unlike policy areas such as monetary and competition policy which may be decided by qualified majority voting (a voting method requiring 71% of weighted votes representing at least 8 member states and 60% of total population).

Whether or not the EU accomplishes its goals at the IGC will have important consequences for the United States. Critics of the EU’s endeavors see the possibility of a superstate emerging from the negotiations. An EU of this nature could compete with the United States globally and challenge U.S. preeminence economically and, eventually, militarily. Supporters, on the other hand, suggest that the emergence of a single partner able to act as one would not only allow for more efficient transatlantic policymaking process but would also mean a stronger, more capable partner for the United States on the world stage.

What’s the IGC all about?

An Intergovernmental Conference is a gathering of representatives from the member states of the European Union who negotiate changes to the EU’s treaties. In the past, IGCs have led to the creation of a single European market with the ratification of the Single European Act of 1986, the decision to create a common currency at Maastricht in 1992, the establishment of a high representative for common foreign and security policy in Amsterdam in 1997, and the refinement of decisionmaking processes to accommodate new members at Nice in 2000. (A brief history of the EU and previous IGCs can be found on the U.S. website of the EU.)

At the conclusion of the Nice IGC, there was widespread agreement that its conclusions were unsatisfactory. The summit without doubt came to important decisions on the weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers, the size and composition of the European Commission, extending qualified majority voting to new areas of competence, and enhanced cooperation. These results would make it possible for the EU to accept new members without creating a permanent decisionmaking bottleneck. However, the Nice conclusion disappointed many observers who had hoped that the IGC would take up the issue of the future shape of Europe.

The questions of what shape Europe should take and how far integration should go are not new ones for the EU. Throughout its history, member states have been divided on these issues. Small states, including Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, have seen their global position strengthened through closer cooperation and integration. Given its turbulent past, Germany saw its future closely tied to its European neighbors through a process of closer integration that could eventually lead to a federal structure, perhaps similar to its own. France and the United Kingdom, have been more skeptical of the integration process. Given its historical position in the world, the United Kingdom has strongly supported an intergovernmental approach to integration that preserves its national sovereignty. Likewise France favored an intergovernmental process but often has seen the benefits of being a motor of European integration along with Germany. Other EU member states fall out along the spectrum from intergovernmentalism to federalism.

In the lead-up to the Nice summit in 2000, prominent European leaders gave speeches on the topic. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer called for a federation of states; French president Jacques Chirac rejected the idea of a superstate or federal state but called for deepening cooperation further among an “avantgarde” group of states; and British prime minister Tony Blair also rejected the concept of a superstate but embraced the idea of a superpower based on a union of democracies. The fact that Nice had failed to debate Europe’s future left many believing that there was unfinished business.

Recognizing this, the Nice summit declaration called for EU-wide public debates on the future of Europe. Upon conclusion of the debate, a decision would be made at the Laeken summit in December 2001 on how to proceed, with special regard to the division of powers within the EU, the status of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the role of national parliaments, and simplification of the EU’s treaties. At the European constitutional convention met for the first time in February 2002. It was chaired by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and had 105 members. The delegation members came from the governments of the 15 member states and the 13 candidate countries, their national parliaments, the European Parliament, and the European Commission. The convention’s format was intended to allow for open debate among representatives of all of the various stakeholders in the future of Europe. The convention’s most important accomplishment was the production of a draft constitutional treaty. Some of its most important provisions include:

  • Election of a president of the European Council. The leadership of the European Council, a group of the heads of state and governments of the EU, currently rotates among the member states every six months. A president, elected for a period of 2½ years, would replace the current practice of rotating the presidency among the member states every six months.

  • Reduction of the size of the European Commission. The European Commission, consisting of a college of commissioners who each head a directorate-general, has 15 members—one commissioner from each of the 15 member states. With the addition of 10 new member states, the Commission will grow to 25 members, each with a vote. The treaty would reduce the number of voting commissioners to 15 with 10 non-voting members. Each member state would still have a representative and the right to vote would rotate. This provision, however, would not be implemented until 2009.

  • Simplification of voting methods. A new rule would change the complicated “qualified majority vote” necessary to pass many types of legislation in the European Council to a simpler majority vote. The new measure would mean that a vote would require a majority of member states that also represent at least 60% of the EU’s total population.

  • Enhancement of the European Parliament’s role. The number of areas in which the European Parliament may exercise the right to co-decision (i.e. to jointly make decisions along with the Commission or Council) would expand to cover all policy areas subject to majority voting such as employment.

  • Inclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter provides European citizens with a wide range of basic social and political rights such as human dignity, the right to life, the right to liberty and security, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, freedom of expression and assembly, equality between men and women, and environment and consumer protection. These rights would be binding on member states only insofar as they already are legally binding in a member state.

  • Creation of a EU minister of foreign affairs. This position would combine the roles of Javier Solana, high representative for common foreign and security policy who is responsible for policymaking and diplomacy, and Chrisopher Patten, the commissioner for external affairs who is responsible for foreign aid. At present, the high representative answers to the Council of Ministers while the external affairs commissioner is a member of the college of the Europe Commission. In the future, the EU foreign minister would answer directly to the member states in the European Council but would simultaneously be a vice-president of the European Commission.

  • Introduction of a “mutual assistance” clause in defense policy. Signing up for this clause would obligate a member state to come to the aid of another in case of an attack. However, member states could choose not to participate in the defense provisions of the treaty, leaving it to a subset of states to do so.

  • Establishment of a single legal personality. The EU would be able to sign treaties as the EU, rather than individual member states.

The IGC will convene in Rome on October 4 to consider these issues and more. A total of eight meetings will be held over the course of the fall. Among the notable meetings will likely be those of the heads of state and government on October 4, October 16-17, and December 12-13, 2003. All current member states as well as the acceding members will send representatives. One representative from the European Commission, two representatives from the European Parliament, and observers from the candidate states (Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey) will join them. Delegates to the IGC will use the draft constitution as a basis for their discussions but are not obligated to adopt any of its provisions. All decisions made, however, must be made by unanimity.

Likely Outcomes of the IGC

The IGC will probably accept most of the conclusions of the constitutional convention, including the elimination of the rotating Council presidency, the simplification of majority voting procedures, extension of the European Parliament’s role, and acceptance of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The principal divide at the IGC will most likely be between the “large” and the “small” states. The reduction in the size of the Commission may therefore prove controversial. Already the small EU states have raised objections. They fear that the elimination of the rotating Council presidency although a practical proposal will reduce their ability to influence Council debates, especially with the agreement at Nice to provide more populous states with more votes in the Council. Given the likelihood that the Council proposal will be accepted, small states will seek to maintain a national voice in the Commission by sticking to the one country-one commissioner formula. Large states, which have been historically underrepresented in the Council, are thus likely to compromise on the size of the Commission in order to win support for their goal of creating a Council president.

In foreign and security policy, the creation of the post of EU foreign minister will be accepted. The current separation of duties between a high representative answerable to the Council of Ministers and a commissioner for external affairs reporting to the president of the Commission creates confusion about who handles foreign policy within the EU so embodying both roles in one person will not only make the role clearer but also give the new foreign minister both the policy tool of diplomacy as well as foreign aid.

Member states are also unlikely to accept the “mutual assistance” clause obligating the countries participating in it to come to the aid of another if it were attacked. Given the existence of a collective security guarantee in NATO, member states, especially Britain, the Netherlands, and many of the acceding members, are sure to oppose this provision as costly duplication of current effort.

Majority voting on foreign and security policy is unlikely to be extended much, given the strong attachment to the sovereignty in foreign affairs in France and Britain among others. However, the weaknesses in decisionmaking that the Iraq war revealed may embolden negotiators to go further than expected on majority voting and greater (or enhanced) cooperation between member states on defense matters.

It is not clear, however, whether advocates of even deeper integration will push for small groups of states to move forward on defense policy, for example, as France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg have done. However, the success of the common currency has shown that it can be possible to have such enhanced cooperation within the Union.

Will the EU become a superstate? The question is likely to remain unanswered in this IGC.

The United States and the IGC

The United States will have no formal role in the IGC. However, U.S government officials do regularly engage in discussions on all levels with their counterparts in the EU. Thus the United States may informally offer opinions on developments at the IGC, particularly those that will affect transatlantic relations such as those on foreign and defense policy.

For both advocates and opponents of deeper integration in the EU, especially in foreign policy, an EU able to act more effectively will be helpful to the United States. The creation of a foreign minister will be a step toward giving the EU one foreign policy voice and one phone number to call—a long sought-after goal of the United States.

A Council presidency which no longer rotates every six months would give the EU more consistency, which will allow the United States to pursue a longer term agenda with the EU.

More efficient foreign and security policymaking (especially with extended majority voting) could make it possible for the United States and Europe to work together on initiatives even when the EU lacks unanimity.

Giving the EU the right to sign treaties on behalf of its member states would allow other countries to negotiate directly with the EU, something which they already do in trade negotiations. Rather than dealing with France, Greece, Hungary, or Spain, the United States could interact with one counterpart, not 25.


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