The prototype for the Convention? The conference of parliaments held in Rome before the Maastricht IGC

Richard Corbett MEP

By Richard Corbett MEP

Only once before has an IGC been prepared by a body meeting in public and whose composition included members of national parliaments and the European Parliament. This was the case of the Maastricht Treaty IGC, which began on 15 December 1991, and was preceded in November 1991 by a week-long “Conference of Parliaments” held in Rome (also known as the “assizes”).

Never before had a major international negotiation been preceded by a conference of the very parliaments that would later have to ratify the outcome of the negotiations. The fact that they did so, and concluded with a Declaration approved by an overwhelming majority (150 to 13) in which their expectations of the IGC were clearly expressed, was highly significant in shaping the agenda of the IGC.

It was President Mitterrand, in a speech to the European Parliament, on the 25 October 1989, who launched the term “Assizes”. He asked “Why should the European Parliament not organize assizes on the future of the Community in which, alongside your Assembly, delegations from national parliaments, the Commission and the governments would participate?”. The European Parliament later seized upon this idea and linked it to the IGCs, conceiving of the “Assizes” as a joint parliamentary preparation for the IGCs.

After the European Parliament had taken up the idea, it was discussed in the regular meetings held by the Presidents of all the national parliaments and of the European Parliament. The Italian Camera dei Deputati offered to host the meeting. Details of the preparations were also discussed in the (“COSAC”) meetings of the specialized organs in national parliaments that deal with European affairs who had begun to meet regularly in 1989, but most preparation was done via the offices of the respective presidents.

Regarding composition, it was agreed that approximately two-thirds of the participants would be from national parliaments and one-third from the European Parliament (a compromise between those who thought there should be an equal number of European and national parliamentarians and those who thought that the European Parliament should have a delegation of similar size to those of the largest national parliaments). Each national parliament would have a number of delegates equal to one-third the number of MEPs it had in the European Parliament, rounded to the nearest whole number (but with a slight adjustment for the smallest three parliaments leading to the national parliaments having, in fact, more than two-thirds of the total number of delegates: 173 to 85). For various reasons of protocol, the question of who formally convened the conference was left ambiguous, with most parliaments considering that it was “self-convened” by all the parliaments collectively. Although the meeting was formally entitled “Conference of the Parliaments of the European Community”, the term “Assizes” soon gained usage in ordinary conversation despite its ambiguous meaning in the English language at least.

Most parliaments (though not necessarily each chamber: in the UK for instance only the House of Lords) prepared written submissions to the Assizes, usually consisting of any resolutions adopted by that parliament on the matter or else of reports from the specialized committee. The European Parliament’s contribution consisted of its proposed Treaty amendments (The Martin Report).

Debates took place on the floor of the Camera dei Deputati over a four-day period. Besides the actual participants, speeches were made by the President of the Italian Republic, Francisco Cossiga, the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, and the President of the Council, Giulio Andreotti. Debates were presided over by a triumvirate consisting of the presidents of the two Italian Chambers (Nilde Iotti and Giovanni Spadolini) and the President of the European Parliament (Enrique Baron Crespo).

The issue of seating arrangements in the Assizes was a matter of some controversy. The initial seating arrangement consisted of each national parliamentary delegation sitting together as a block, with the European Parliament delegation in the centre part of the hemicycle, divided into its political groups. At the opening of the first session of the Assizes, however, participants voted by a large majority to sit instead according to political affiliation, based on the political groupings of the European Parliament. It was argued that this was a more “European” arrangement and that differences of point of view were more on a political basis than a national basis.

The decision to sit and operate in transparty political groupings had not met with universal approval. The British Conservatives – not then part of any Europe wide grouping – had opposed it. Laurent Fabius, then President of the French Assemblee Nationale but also an MEP and member of Parliament’s Committee on Institutional Affairs, had initially also opposed the idea, but following a dinner of Socialist delegation leaders organized by Jean-Pierre Cot, the evening before the Assizes, at which almost all leaders spoke in favour of sitting by political family, he not only accepted the idea but agreed to Cot’s proposal that he, given his unique position as MEP and President of a national parliament, should formally move it in the plenary the following day.

This decision was to prove important for the whole dynamics of the Assizes. The political groupings met before or after the daily sittings of the Assizes in order to consider jointly their position on different questions, not least the final declaration and amendments thereto. The secretariats of the political groups in the European Parliament provided facilities for these meetings, and the core of MEPs within each grouping, having the best international contacts and, frequently, the best linguistic skills, were often among the key actors in such meetings.

Some of the political groups in the European Parliament organised pre-meetings with their counterparts in the national parliaments the day before the Assizes in Rome. This was the case for the Socialist, Christian Democrat, Liberal and Green groups. Indeed, the Socialists’ meeting adopted a “declaration” of Socialist participants in the Assizes, equipping Socialist participants – both national and European – with a set of positions before entering the Assizes. This text was negotiated by consensus among the various Socialist party delegation leaders, with more cautious parties being encouraged to shift position. The acceptance by the Labour Party delegation of full economic and monetary union, for instance, was endorsed two days later by the party’s national executive committee.

The final Declaration was prepared by a drafting committee consisting of the chairmen of the 18 specialized committees in national parliaments that deal with European affairs together with eight MEPs. Originally, it had been agreed (by the preparatory meeting of presidents) that five MEPs only would take part in the drafting committee, but this was changed at the opening plenary meeting of the Assizes in order to achieve roughly the same proportion of national and European MPs as in the Assizes as a whole. Under the rules agreed beforehand by the presidents, and approved by the plenary at the opening, the drafting committee would submit a text which could be approved by the plenary only by an absolute majority of participants. Amendments could also be tabled in plenary, but would similarly require an absolute majority of participants in order to be adopted.

The drafting committee worked on the basis of an initial draft prepared by Charles Ferdinand Nothomb, President of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies (and former Foreign Minister and MEP). As Chairman of the Belgian Chamber, he was ex-officio chairman of its mixed committee on European Affairs, composed on a parity basis of Belgian MEPs and MPs, and was therefore the one person present both at meetings of Presidents of Parliaments and of the meeting of chairmen of the specialized committees (CEAC), both of which had been involved in the preparation of the Assizes. A keen European, his offer to chair the drafting committee and to submit a first draft was accepted by the others.

Nothomb submitted his first draft to the drafting committee only on the evening of the first full day of the Assizes (27 November). He had used the previous 24 hours to hold informal consultations with delegation leaders. The draft was then examined by the drafting committee which fixed a deadline of 10 o’clock for that same evening for its members to submit amendments. These amendments were then examined and voted on the next day by the drafting committee, a simple majority being enough to adopt them. Some 80 amendments were submitted, about half of which were adopted.

Within the drafting committee, there were naturally differences of opinion. The chairmen of the national parliamentary committees largely reflected the position of the majority in their parliaments and were therefore closest to the position of their respective governments, but sometimes the differences went beyond this. The UK House of Commons committee, for instance, was chaired by Nigel Spearing, a long-standing Labour Eurosceptic. The French Senate’s Committee was chaired by Jacques Genton, a Gaullist Euro-sceptic. The committee of the Assemblee Nationale was chaired by Charles Josselin who, whilst generally a mainstream French Socialist pro-European, was among sponsors of a proposal to establish a “Congress” of national parliamentarians at European level, an idea which in the end did not receive majority support at the Assizes.

The text of the drafting committee was submitted to the plenary, where it had been agreed that five or more members could table amendments. Some 222 amendments were submitted, largely as a result of discussions in meetings of the political groupings, but also by some national delegations (though some were later withdrawn).

The final sitting on Friday morning was given over almost entirely to the votes on the amendments and the text. By this time many members had left. Absences at this stage particularly affected German delegates (who were a few days away from a general election) and Italians (who were particularly prey to domestic political distractions). As a result, the requirement that, to be adopted, an amendment secure a majority of participants (i.e. 130 votes) meant in practice some three-quarters of those present. As a result, only 25 amendments were adopted. When it came to the final vote only 189 members were present and the text was adopted by 150 votes to 13. However, it can safely be said that were it not for the early departures, it would have been adopted by an even larger majority.

The Declaration endorsed the objective of re-modelling the Community into a European Union on a federal basis and backed a single currency governed by an autonomous central banking system, taking the view that this required stronger instruments of economic and social cohesion. It supported the incorporation of European Political Cooperation on foreign policy into the Community structures and the inclusion of European citizenship and fundamental rights in the Treaties. It backed extension in Community competences in the social and cultural fields, and also endorsed the institutional requests of the European Parliament concerning co-decision on legislation, appointment and term of office of the Commission, right of initiative, scrutiny powers and assent procedure for Treaty modifications. It called for the European Parliament and the national parliaments to prepare a constitution, with the Commission becoming the executive and Parliament and Council exercising legislative and budgetary functions.

Thus, the Assizes also served to re-emphasize a number of key issues and to help build a body of support for them on the eve of the IGCs.

This article was written by Richard Corbett, a PES member of the European Parliament. He can be contacted at rcorbett@europarl.eu.int. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. The article was first published in European Voice on 28 February 2002.

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