An unconventional bargain

Bulletin article
Steven Everts and Daniel Keohane
02 June 2003

The Convention on the future of Europe has now entered its final phase. To the surprise of many it has already reached consensus on many elements of a new constitution for the EU. However, on the all-important question of allocating power, deep divisions remain not just between federalists and inter-governmentalists but even more so between bigger and smaller member-states.

These different camps seem to be hardening their positions. The bad atmosphere caused by the Iraq crisis is having a negative impact on the debate. Yet, the Convention's credibility depends on its reaching an agreement on who should lead the EU of 25 member-states.

Convention President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing will present a blueprint of the EU's constitution at the Thessalonika summit. Even if the Convention does not decide every detail of the new EU constitution, it will certainly define the parameters for the follow-up intergovernmental conference (IGC).

Large and small countries agree that the biggest problems with the EU's existing set up are the twin deficits of leadership and legitimacy. What remedies should the Convention propose? In theory the European Council, which brings together the heads of government, should provide the EU with strategic direction. But everyone accepts that it is no longer performing this task satisfactorily. One reason is that every six months a different country chairs the European Council, along with the sectoral councils below it. Increasingly this rotation system has become a complicating nuisance. When occupying the EU hot seat, governments have a habit of pursuing their pet projects to the detriment of long-standing EU priorities. The rotation system also confuses non-Europeans who have to work with different people every six months.

Giscard has proposed that instead of a country chairing the European Council, a person should do the job. He argues that a Council president or chairman, appointed for 2 1/2 years (with the possibility of one further term), would provide greater coherence and continuity. Advocates of a
European Council president also argue that he or she should represent the EU externally, at the highest level, for example to visit President Bush to discuss major international issues.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark and Sweden all support the idea of a Council president. But therein lies the problem, as most of these countries are larger member-states. The vast majority of small countries, including the new members, want to keep a version of the six-monthly rotation system. They are suspicious of the larger countries' motives, fearing that a Council president would become a vehicle for big country influence. The small countries are already upset that their influence in the EU has declined in recent years. They also believe that a strong Council president would create endless confusion and friction with the Commission president.

The small countries see a strong Commission as the best insurance against the bigger member-states throwing their weight around. Of course, smaller member-states are divided, just like larger ones, on whether deeper EU integration is desirable and if so in what areas and at what pace. But they all want to preserve the institutional balance between the Council and the Commission.

Europe badly needs a compromise acceptable to both large and small states but one that improves both EU legitimacy and effectiveness. The smaller countries must accept that the rotation system has serious flaws and that a chairman of the European Council would be a useful innovation. But the larger countries should take the smaller countries' concerns more seriously. That is why, along with a Council chairman, the EU needs a stronger Commission too. One important way to strengthen the Commission is to give greater authority to its president.

Giscard has proposed that the European Parliament should elect the Commission president from a short-list of one drawn up by the European Council 'taking into account' the European election results. The purpose would be to enhance the president's legitimacy. However, Giscard's proposal to have the Commission president chosen by the European Council and ratified by the Parliament is unsatisfactory. It is almost identical to the present procedure and would do too little to enhance the legitimacy of the Commission president.

Even so, some governments oppose Giscard's proposal, fearing that it might create a more party-political Commission. How could the Commission make objective judgments on, say, competition policy, if its leader had a clear mandate from one of the Parliament's main political parties? But such worries are misplaced. So long as national governments continue to appoint the other commissioners, the Commission will remain a multi-party institution.

Instead of Giscard's proposal, the European Council should decide on a shortlist of three candidates, based on European election results. Following that, a Congress comprising MEPs and national parliamentarians should elect the Commission president. The main advantage of the Congress is that it would involve national parliamentarians in the workings of the Union. Other tasks for the Congress would be to endorse or reject the European Council's choice of chairman. And it could approve the Commission and Council annual work programmes.

Another element of a broad bargain between large and smaller states would be to maintain one commissioner per member-state. Giscard has proposed limiting their number to 15. Of course, fewer commissioners would mean a more streamlined organisation. But the Commission gains vital legitimacy through every member-state being represented at the apex of EU policy-making. To overcome this problem, Giscard's draft mentions that the Commission can call on 'associate commissioners', but without explaining their role. To balance legitimacy and efficiency considerations, the Commission should have a new level of junior commissioners members of the College but without a vote. All sides should be able to live with this compromise, provided that all countries large and small take it in turns to have senior and junior commissioners.

Europe urgently needs a grand institutional bargain: a Council chairman who ensures that countries deliver on their commitments, plus a Commission president who has a political mandate from both MEPs and national parliamentarians.

Such a bargain should be acceptable to small and large states alike. It would make the EU both more effective and democratic. And it might put an end to the endless infighting over the institutional balance.

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