The Nice Summit: Deciding Without Choosing

The European summit held in Nice in December 2000 was scheduled to conclude an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) started earlier in the year primarily to prepare the institutions of the European Union (EU) for enlargement. As determined by the EU calendar, this important summit fell under the aegis of the French, whose six-month presidency of the EU had been welcomed in France as a timely opportunity to reassert its leadership in Europe while preparing the EU for a stronger role in the world. Also — and not to be ignored — the EU Summit was perceived by President Jacques Chirac as an opportunity to boost his own leadership in France.

Given the important issues that had been left unsettled at the 1997 Amsterdam summit, France’s ambitions for the Nice meeting did not seem unfounded. Unfortunately, the political context in which the French presidency occurred was not propitious. First, the summer of 2000 brought considerable discord within and among the EU member states. European Union sanctions imposed on Austria earlier remained controversial, and were lifted only mid-way through the French presidency. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer added to rising public apprehension about an intrusive Europe by presenting his “personal” views on a federal Europe, a topic that not even Jean Monnet had ever dared to broach. Within member states, a falling euro and rising oil prices were challenging weak coalition governments at home, as well as opening new divisions within the EU. The resulting disruptions — EU intrusion into domestic politics, a misplaced vision of Europe’s future, and domestic economic and political instabilities — appeared to thwart the central goal of the French presidency of the EU, which was premised on the proposition that it could create more integration in Europe without leaving France with less sovereignty.

If the general political context of the Nice summit was contentious, so, too, was the Franco-German relationship. For the past 40 years, the process of integration in Europe has been promoted through the joint efforts of France and Germany. But this constructive partnership, initiated when President Charles de Gaulle first met with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in September 1958, has begun to show signs of weakness. Prior to and during the Amsterdam summit, an increasingly ineffective European Commission, undermined by the European Parliament, reduced the capacity of French and German leaders to bear the full weight of European integration. This was at a time when political cohabitation in France had already complicated Chirac’s relations with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Now, prior to Nice, German reunification threatened to upset the Franco-German balance of power. In particular, Germany’s demand for more national weight within the EU institutions revived French apprehensions over an objectively bigger and arguably more assertive German state.

A final set of obstacles related to Jacques Chirac himself. Early in 2000, the French president had looked torward Nice as an opportunity to give his wounded presidency — and, above all, his forthcoming presidential campaign — a new start. François Mitterrand had managed to do something similar in 1985 at Fontainebleau, when he laid the foundation for his 1988 presidential defeat of Chirac. By the summer of 2000, however, Chirac had become the focus of a widening set of allegations of corruption emerging from his many years as Mayor of Paris. More than at any time since his disastrous call for early legislative elections in the spring of 1997, Chirac was also politically weak, unable to control either the conservative majority that had taken him to the Elysée in 1995, or the socialist-led majority that brought Lionel Jospin to Matignon two years later. This weakness at home undermined his influence with the EU partners in Nice. In the weeks leading up to the Nice summit, rumors emerged that Chirac’s views of Europe were “not shared” by the Prime Minister. Whether Jospin could have done better than his rival is open to question, to be sure. But the rumors were vague enough to help Jospin at home, among pro-EU and anti-EU factions alike. They also helped to reinforce the objections of several European countries relating to the procedures, substance, and style of the French EU presidency.

Given these difficult circumstances, the Nice meeting achieved more than could have been expected. Deciding without choosing is common practice for EU countries determined to postpone decisions and avoid choices as long as possible. The decisions they faced in Nice involved unusually serious, extraordinarily difficult choices that might change the course of history for many EU countries — current members but also new applicants. Given what was at stake, a disastrous institutional deadlock was certainly possible. The central measure of success for the Nice summit must be, therefore, that what was decided was sufficient, and sufficiently timely, to sustain the EU project.

Most significantly, the Nice summit agreed on new formulas of EU governance, including a redistribution of votes allocated to member states and new applicants (except Turkey) and an extension of qualified majority voting. The decisions amount to a sort of electoral college for the European Union, with each country seeking an institutional means to compensate for differences in the size, population and status of member states.

Despite its larger size, Germany will maintain parity of representation with Europe’s three other large states — France, Great Britain, and Italy. Holland was allocated one more vote than its historic rival Belgium, but the three Benelux states will hold, as a matter of status, a total number of votes equal to each of the Big Three (plus Great Britain) that also signed the 1957 Rome Treaties. Complex accommodations balanced every concession. Germany, for example, received a generous additional allocation of seats in the European Parliament in recognition of its larger size. Europe’s more populous countries received additional protection against their smaller partners through a rule defining qualified majority voting on the basis of population. Smaller states received a counter-veiling protection in a parallel rule allowing a minority of countries to block a decision regardless of the weighted vote (the so-called blocking minority).

The Nice summit also produced many other important decisions. The range of issues open to the use of national vetoes was further restricted, especially in the area of trade and services, although France prevailed in its campaign to retain exemptions in the fields of culture and audio-visual services. The European Commission will be trimmed. Each of the larger member states has agreed to renounce their second commissioner by 2005, and an ill-defined plan for rotating representation was agreed upon. The Nice summit reaffirmed the idea of “enhanced cooperation,” whereby some member states may proceed with integration faster than others. This procedure could set the stage for new agreements that one or more member-states will not wish to pursue, or that new members might not be ready to enter. Participating countries also eagerly endorsed pre-negotiated proposals for a European Security and Defense Policy (EDSP). These decisions, each likely to cause unintended (and hence, unpredictable) consequences, will prove significant for the future development of the European Union.

Finally, the Nice summit also gives EU member states, as well as applicants for EU membership, a better sense of the schedule for further decisions and final choices. Most significantly, the 15 EU members agreed to hold another IGC in 2004, shortly before the end of the five-year mandate for the current EU Commission headed by the embattled Romano Prodi. Such an early decision for yet another IGC sets a deadline for the unfinished business of the Amsterdam and Nice summits. Now, the next IGC need no longer be viewed as a prerequisite to enlargement, pending the successful completion of EU reforms — as has been the case since the 1993 Copenhagen summit. Instead, IGC 2004 can already be viewed as a target date for enlargement that commits the current member states to make the required choices for institutional reforms.

By that time, these choices will be helped by the many decisions that will have moved the integration process closer to the end point that Fischer, Chirac, and many of their colleagues wanted to debate this summer. Closer, that is, to a Euro-zone of 15 countries, if Britain moves to a final decision after the 2001 election — a decision that would affect both Sweden and Denmark. Closer, as well, to ESDP, once member states have met the 2003 Headline Goals and the European defense sector has been consolidated further. And closer, too, to other reforms, including budgetary reforms designed to balance the EU burdens and benefits more evenly between its current and future members.

One lesson from the Nice summit may be that the six-month timetable of the EU presidency has become too short. As the fifteen EU member states face an increasingly demanding and complex agenda, no presidency now has enough time to launch, develop, and enforce significant initiatives. Issues on the agenda have now become far too important to be decided in only six months and ratified by heads of state in two or three days. The process has taken the form of a relay whereby each member state can still hope to make its presidency a dash to the finish line — but only to pass on the baton to its successor. Chirac accomplished much. But his misplaced aspiration that he could accomplish everything gave the appearance that he had not done enough. The true legacy of “his” summit will be that the reforms mandated in Copenhagen in 1993 and postponed in Amsterdam in 1997 were re-launched in Nice in 2000, with decisions that frame choices that will be pursued by the Swedish and Belgian presidencies in 2001 and, hopefully, completed by 2004.

Simon Serfaty is director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, and senior professor of US foreign policy at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Va. His most recent books are “Stay the Course: European Unity and Atlantic Solidarity” (1997) and “Memories of Europe’s Future: Farewell to Yesteryear” (1999).