What changes will the draft constitution make?

The possibility that some aspects of the draft constitution might still be subject to further amendment in the IGC means that it is not possible to give a definitive breakdown of what the final constitution will say. However, the main features are spelled out below, along with why they are interesting and should be supported.

Election of the president of the European Commission

Article 26 of the draft constitution explicitly states that the president of the European Commission should be chosen “Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament”. This opens the way to a new system of parliamentary government at European level. The party groups – PES, EPP-ED, ELDR, etc – can now nominate candidates for Commission president at the same time as drafting their manifestoes for the European elections. Such a move would increase the importance and public attention given to those elections. A clear electoral mandate will also strengthen the power of the European Commission to represent the common European interest.

At the time of the last European elections in 1999, Romano Prodi had already been nominated as Commission president six weeks before the elections took place. What kind of an election is it where the results are announced beforehand? No wonder not many people voted.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights

Citizens will have their fundamental rights within the EU guaranteed by the constitution. At present, human rights provisions apply to the member states – because they are signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights – but not to the EU itself – because it is not. The incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the constitution will ensure that fundamental rights will be respected and protected in Brussels.

Co-decision for the European Parliament

The powers of the European Parliament will be extended to many more areas of legislation. Chief among these is the whole of the budget, which in turn means agriculture. Hitherto, decisions on the CAP have been effectively taken by the Council of Ministers on its own. This has meant that there has been no real European debate about the future of agriculture, only a series of national debates. The British have debated among themselves in the UK, the French in France. It fell to government ministers alone to conduct the European debate about the future of the CAP, doing so in private with many other issues of bilateral relations on the table at the same time. An open, parliamentary debate about the future of agriculture in Europe is long overdue. The draft constitution will at last make it possible to sort out the CAP.

Openness and majority voting in the Council of Ministers

The Council of Ministers, which represents the member state governments, has often met in secret even when adopting legislation. It was notorious as the only legislature in the democratic world to do so, justifying the practice on the grounds of its origins as a diplomatic body. In the new constitution, a Legislative Council is created to handle all legislation. Normal democratic rules will start to apply.

Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) will also be extended to many new areas of policy (exactly how far is still controversial-but should not be re-opened). This will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of decision-making. The Single Market was only created because of QMV introduced in the Single European Act, after all.

More cooperation on foreign policy

At present, the external representation of the European Union is divided among several different figures, including the High Representative of Foreign Policy (an official of the Council of Ministers, currently Javier Solana) and the European Commissioners responsible for external affairs (currently Chris Patten). The constitution will merge these two posts, creating a Vice-President of the Commission who will also act as the chief representative of the Council of Ministers (in the jargon, this is called “double-hatting”). This should improve the coordination of EU foreign policy.

Not tackled in the constitution are the need for a substantial extension of majority voting to most foreign policy decisions, or the overlap between the role of the Council presidency in its conduct of external relations and that of the Vice-President of the Commission.

A permanent chair for the European Council

The six-month rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers will be replaced with the hope of introducing more continuity. Most of the existing thematic councils – fisheries, internal market, and so on – will probably get presidencies that change annually rather than every six months as at present.

The European Council will get a new chair, elected by its members to serve a 2 ½ year term. Some of its advocates, particularly its British advocates, seem to think that this post will become effectively the “President” of the EU, dominating the president of the European Commission who serves as “prime minister”. They overlook several facts:

  • the president of the Commission will assume office as a result of the European elections, not as a result of a deal in private among the heads of government;
  • the president of the Commission will be publicly accountable to the European Parliament, the chair will be accountable only at private meetings of the European Council;
  • the president of the Commission will retain the right to propose legislation and leadership of the Commission and all its services, the European Council meets four times a year for two days at a time and has no real executive or legislative functions.

It is possible that the chair of the European Council will be an important post, rather than just a retirement job for a former prime minister. A lot depends on the choice of the individuals to fill these posts.

More involvement for the European Commission in justice and home affairs

The role of the European Commission as guardian of the common European interest is reflected in the constitution. On issues of increasing importance such as asylum and immigration policy, the European Commission will take over the role of developing and initiating policy, rather than leaving it to a rather unwieldy intergovernmental system as at present in the so-called “third pillar” (which will be abolished).

A new power for national parliaments

All new legislative proposals from the European Commission will be submitted to national parliaments for scrutiny as well as to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers for ratification. If one third of the national parliaments object that the proposed legislation is too centralising (i.e. it breaches the principle of subsidiarity), the European Commission will be required to review the proposal.

It is not likely that this new procedure will make much difference: only two items of EU legislation are thought to have ever breached subsidiarity. Of more use will be the increased scrutiny of national government ministers by their respective parliaments, when the Legislative Council meets in public.

Conclusion

The draft European constitution marks a considerable step forward in the development of the European Union. The essential features of parliamentary democracy are more clearly visible in the Brussels institutions than ever before:

  • the choice of leader of the executive (i.e. the Commission president) depending on the European elections
  • generalising the co-decision power of the directly-elected house of the legislature (i.e. the European Parliament)
  • open meetings and more QMV in the upper chamber of the legislature (i.e. the Council of Ministers)

These are the key decision-making features of a European federal system. The powers of that European federal system are still not developed fully – foreign and defence policy still depend primarily on national governments; the EU has yet to acquire the power to raise the income it needs by its own taxation – but nevertheless the outlines are there.

The debate about whether or not Europe will be federal is surely over. The debate about whether Britain will be part of it is not.

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