Steps taken Saturday at a meeting of the European Council could mean a treaty that would reform European Union institutions will enter into force as soon as June 2009.
Two days of difficult, all-night negotiations ended with EU leaders agreeing on a mandate for an Intergovernmental Conference to draw up a new Reform Treaty to replace the rejected EU constitution of 2005. The treaty is to be drafted before the end of this year, a goal that even very recently seemed both improbable and impossible.
The new reform treaty would make it easier for Europe to act as a unified bloc and give the region a greater voice on the world stage. The aim is also to deal with the institutional gridlock that is all too likely given the recent acquisition of twelve new members. The treaty will include voting changes that redistribute votes and move more decisions to a double majority system as opposed to requiring unanimity, doing much to remove the threat of national vetoes and streamlining the decision-making process. Other changes include shrinking the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, from twenty-seven seats to seventeen seats and changing the post of EU president to an elected position with a maximum term of five years instead of rotating national leaders into the chair. The European Parliament and national parliaments will also be given more say in the decision-making process, increasing the EU’s democratic legitimacy.
Reaching consensus on a mandate was by no means an easy feat. Tony Blair, in his last few days as British Prime Minister, came with “red lines” from Britain which demanded that the new treaty not resemble the failed constitution and preserved certain law and order rights. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that open business competition be kept out of the EU’s guiding principles. Most threatening to the ultimate outcome, though, were Polish demands in regards to voting rights.
Citing Poland’s enormous loss of life at the hands of the Germans in World War II, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother Prime Minister Jaroslaw sought to maintain greater voting rights for Poland. Though the current system gives the country voting powers disproportionate to its population, under the proposed new system, Germany, home to 82 million people, would have a considerably greater share of the vote than Poland, home to only 38 million. The Kaczynskis argued that Poland’s population today would be 66 million if not for WWII casualties in an effort to force German acquiescence. In the end, Poland finally agreed to the switch to the new, population-based voting system, currently scheduled for 2014. However, extra safeguards will be in place for Poland until 2017.
The mandate is a huge success for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has made finding a plan to replace the failed constitution a priority of Germany’s six-month EU presidency. It was also a diplomatic victory for France’s new President Sarkozy, who played a large roll, along with Merkel, in brokering the deal with Poland, and a fitting send-off for Blair, who saw all of Britain’s demands met while still helping the EU move forward towards reform.
Given the failure of the 2005 constitutional treaty, it will undoubtedly be interesting to see this new treaty process plays out. Reforms are clearly necessary for the EU, now far larger than its creators ever intended, and if all involved parties can present a united front in world affairs, Europe could become a formidable single voice.