As mentioned below, the member states of the EU are starting a new round of negotiations on a replacement for the constitutional treaty that went down in flames thanks to referendum defeats in 2005. Below the break my own doubtless idiosyncratic take as to what is at stake and what is important.
First off, the key question is whether there is anything substantively different between the constitutional treaty and what is on the table for negotiation (I’m not saying anything about the likely final product, as there is still a lot of stuff that is up for grabs). The changes that Germany (which holds the Presidency) has put on the table are about getting rid of the symbolism, while keeping the substantive changes. And even if they never quite amounted to a constitution) they are quite substantive, especially the proposal to incorporate the Charter of Fundamental Rights, in a backhanded fashion. I think that adopting the Charter would be a good move on the merits, as it would make basic rights justiciable on the European level. You can put forward a good democratic argument that resolving rights disputes through the courts rather than through politics is a bad thing. But the current system is one of rights protections already – but only of certain rights (rights to free movement, trade etc) which have a distinct pro-market bias (despite the creative and sometimes successful efforts of lawyers to extend them in novel directions including equal pay for men and women etc etc). I’d like to see other non-market rights getting a look-in too.
This means that if we look at the procedural issues rather the substantive ones, I think that skeptics such as Martin Wolf have the right of it. This is a quite substantial set of changes. It should be presented to people so that they can vote on it (and taken off the table if they don’t want it). It’s a shame and a disgrace that the EU member states have responded to the 2005 defeat by going back to their old practice of seeking to achieve integration by boring the general public into submission, and a very substantial backward step. If people aren’t willing to sign up to major changes in the EU system of governance, then too bad for the EU system of governance.
The headline dispute is likely to be between Poland and the other member states, headed by Germany, over voting weights in the Council of Ministers. One of the purposes of the previous constitutional treaty was to stitch up a deal on this issue before the new member states joined the club and started cutting up rough. This hasn’t worked out, obviously, and Poland, which has taken over Britain’s awkward customer role, is pushing for a system in which the number of votes each member state has in the Council would be a function of the square root of its population (which would obviously water down the relative clout of Germany quite considerably). Poland can in principle block the whole thing, but it might have to pay a significant political cost. Unlike Britain, when Margaret Thatcher was pushing to get ‘my money back,’ Poland is a net recipient of EU money, and may find itself in an awkward position when negotiations over various development funds open up again. Other issues might also blow up unexpectedly, such as Poland’s provision of secret CIA prison facilities under a previous government (the relevant Commissioner was muttering a couple of years ago about suspension of Council voting rights; while he has been remarkably quiet since actual proof has emerged, this issue is still out there in the long grass).
In comments below, stostosto points to this FT article, which suggests that Poland is playing its cards in a remarkably ham-handed way. On the one hand, there are some signals that Poland is willing to countenance a compromise. On the other, it has started talking about how it would have lots more population and a correspondingly enhanced voting weight, if only Germany hadn’t invaded in 1939. This is a direct attack on the EU’s most important self-justifying shibboleth – that it is supposed to have made the bitter enemies of WWII into partners committed to mutual prosperity etc etc etc. It’s obviously going to be especially upsetting to Germany, which might in a previous era have been more receptive to rude outside criticism, but which is now likely to be extremely pissed off with its WWII behaviour being dragged up again by the Poles. I suspect that this rhetoric is designed for domestic consumption in order to make a climbdown on voting rights more palatable. I also suspect that the Polish government either doesn’t appreciate or doesn’t care that this is likely to substantially damage Poland’s efforts to get concessions on this and that issue from other EU member states for the next few years. As a gaffe, it’s up there with Chirac’s advice to East European states to shut up about the war.
However, the question of respective voting weights, while obviously important to the respective member states, isn’t that interesting for the long term development of EU politics. More interesting to my mind are two key questions. First, whether national parliaments get an effective veto over decisions made at the EU level. The constitutional treaty provided them with a warning role which I suspect would have amounted in fact to an effective veto power (it would be politically difficult to ignore their recommendation) – at the moment, there is a proposal on the table to enhance this further. This seems to me to be an excellent idea. National parliaments have been losing clout in the EU - a lot of their business now involves either rubber stamping or making minor modifications to legislation that is drafted at the EU level. With a couple of exceptions, they don’t play much of a role at all in discussing how governments should negotiate on European legislation. Providing them with an effective veto at the end of the process would mean that they would have to be consulted earlier, and would perhaps become over time a key partner in the legislative process. This would mean increased inefficiencies in getting things done (the addition of another veto player), but would also mean a lot more democratic legitimacy. At the moment, governments are able to get away with a lot of stuff at the EU level that they couldn’t get away with domestically. More clout for national parliaments would make member state shenanigans more difficult to get away with, at the very least because parliaments would have a better idea of what was actually happening.
The second key question to my mind is whether majority voting and the so-called ‘codecision’ procedure is going to be extended to the “third pillar,” or, in plain language, whether the European Parliament is likely to have a voice on justice and home affairs issues. Again, I hope that this goes ahead, perhaps with an opt-out for the British. The con to this is that it does mean that member states have less freedom to determine domestic policing arrangements etc than they otherwise would have. The pro is that the key decisions are increasingly being made on the European level anyway, but through a shadowy set of arrangements and inter-governmental consultations in which there isn’t much at all in the way of real democratic oversight. Take, for example, the Prum Treaty on various forms of police cooperation, negotiated initially between a small set of member states and effectively adopted wholesale last week by the Council (except, notably, for the bits that the European Parliament might have had a say over). We can expect to see more and more of this happening, as the EU both tries to build up a presence in fighting terrorism and trans-border crime, and as conventional decision making procedures become more inconvenient for the big member states who want to see things happening. At the moment, the key decision makers are ministries of the interior, which are not always prominent in their innate respect for fundamental human rights etc. Allowing the European Parliament a voice means that at the very least these issues will get a public airing, and that some of the more egregious possible proposals never get past the drafting stage.