European Affairs

The EU's Treaty of Nice: A Disappointment But Not A Disaster     Print Email
Michael Smith

Brussels correspondent, Financial Times

Few people have anything nice to say about the Treaty of Nice, the accord painfully negotiated by leaders of the European Union at a gruelling summit meeting on the Cªte d'Azur in December. The Treaty was disappointing to enthusiastic supporters of European integration, who had hoped for a big step toward closer union. For EU opponents and skeptics, on the other hand, the Treaty went too far in a federal direction.

President Jacques Chirac of France was almost alone in hailing the laborious, five-day marathon as a major milestone. Stepping out of the bruising wrangling among heads of government that characterized the gathering, he predicted that in years to come Nice would be seen as one of Europe's most important summit meetings.


As the leader who chaired the negotiations, Mr. Chirac clearly had a vested interest in claiming a success - even though he did not personally deserve much credit for the deal. His partisan approach, blatantly favoring his country's interests at the expense of the 15-nation community, appeared to jeopardize the negotiations at times and led to a more complicated outcome than was necessary.

Nevertheless, Mr. Chirac's judgment about the summit's place in history is right. Like many EU agreements, Nice produced a far-from-perfect result which pleased neither the integrationists, who favor transferring further national powers to the EU center, nor the Euroskeptics, who are fighting a rearguard battle for member countries to retain national sovereignty.

But strip away the rhetoric and the Treaty of Nice will emerge for what it is: the reforming instrument by which the EU grows from a 15-nation bloc to a community of at least 27 countries and probably more. The expansion is crucial. It is the best means Europe has for promoting peace and stability, certainly in its own territories but arguably throughout the world as well.

Of the 13 official candidates for admission, Turkey will have to wait many years to join the Union, but Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are among 10 mainly Eastern European countries that could be members within four or five years. Bulgaria and Romania could join around the end of the decade. When that happens, the EU will have an internal market of 500 million people.

To become members, aspirants must fulfill a series of political and economic criteria. They must, for example, be democracies and they must respect human rights. They must participate in the EU's single market and they must adopt the huge raft of legislation, in areas like the environment and social affairs, that forms the Union's so-called acquis communautaire.

But it is not just the candidates for membership that need to change. The EU must also reform the way it does business so as to avoid decision-making sclerosis. In order to open the door to enlargement, which every EU leader purports to want, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the Union had to make progress at Nice in three main areas.

The leaders had to decide on the future size of the Commission, the EU's 20-member executive. They had to reduce the number of areas in which a single country can block a decision backed by all the others by deploying a national veto. And, most difficult of all, they had to decide on an updated formula for majority voting in the enlarged EU, allowing member states to make decisions in the great number of cases where unanimity is not required.

The solutions finally agreed are far from perfect, as the decision on the size of the Commission demonstrates. Many think that the ideal number of Commission members is about a dozen, and that the Commission becomes progressively less effective the more there are beyond that. National pride, however, is at stake.

Until now the five largest countries have appointed two commissioners each and the rest one each. At Nice, the bigger countries were ready to give up one of their commissioners but the smaller ones were unwilling to lose their sole representative, at least in the short term. The compromise was that each country will have one commissioner until there are 27 EU countries, at which point a system of rotation will be introduced and the number of commissioners decided.

In typical EU style, the leaders put off the hard part to some time in the future, and the way the Commission works will suffer as a result; needless jobs will have to be created and the executive will be more unwieldy than it should be.

The agreement on majority voting was not ideal either. The Commission had suggested a simple ''double majority'' system, under which decisions would be agreed providing they were supported both by a majority of member states and by a majority of the EU's population.

Many countries could have gone along with this, but France was not among them. For reasons partly of national pride and history, and to maintain political equilibrium among the larger member countries, France was desperate to keep voting parity with Germany even though it has 20 million citizens fewer than its neighbor. Because Mr. Chirac was in the chair, France was able to get its way.

The result is a fiendishly complicated voting system, which allows each country a specific number of votes, dictated by a range of factors including the size of their populations and the determination with which they argued their cases in Nice.

In the future, decisions will probably be carried providing they are supported by a little more than 70 percent of the total votes. But only probably. A decision will be blocked if it is opposed by countries representing 38 percent of the EU's total population or by more than half the member states.

The agreement on the future scope of national vetoes was also less far-reaching than many integrationists would have liked. Britain, for example, successfully resisted giving up the veto on tax and social security matters, while Spain kept its veto until 2007 on decisions involving the allocation of regional aid.

All in all, it was a messy outcome, which will be difficult to sell to EU citizens - at a time when heads of government say they want to make the Union more accessible to its people. The Treaty must still be approved by the European Parliament and ratified by the 15 national Parliaments.

But while Nice has many imperfections, it is far from disastrous. The Commission can exist with 27 members; the EU will be able to make decisions by majority voting; and the number of areas in which countries can veto decisions has been somewhat reduced.

In short, Nice did the main thing it was intended to do. It made EU enlargement possible and, with a bit of luck, it will help to preserve peace and stability in Europe for years to come as a result.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.