Sunday, 17 December 2000

After the not so Nice

The Malta Independent on Sunday

After the not so Nice

There are winners and losers emerging from` the Nice Agreement.` So much so that the losers are already raising doubts whether the treaty will eventually be ratified firstly by the European Parliament and then by the parliamentary assemblies of the member countries.

Let`s start with the losers first. The most evident loser is the EU Commission headed by Romano Prodi. The Commission had two major objectives to achieve from the Nice Treaty. Firstly it wanted to have the decision making mechanism reduced entirely to qualified majority system based on the double majority rule;` that of the number of members countries and the population represented by such members. Secondly it wanted to cap the Commission to its present number of 20 which had to be nominated by rotation by the respective member countries.` The Commission wanted to emphasise that the` Commissioners had to be absolutely detached from their nominating countries and so it should not matter who nominated the person. What matters, according to the Commission, is the individual ability of the Commissioners to guard the section of the Treaties for which the Commissioners would be responsible.

Prodi lost on both counts to the evident delight of` President Chirac. The decision making mechanism at the Council of Ministers have been made subject to triple majority tests.` Firstly a simple majority of the member countries, secondly a qualified majority of 255 out of 342 weighted votes (nearly 75%) giving three of the four larger countries an effective` blocking power, and lastly a population majority of 62%. Furthermore certain policy issues related to taxation, social security, defence and immigration have been left subject to the veto of each member country.` The post-Nice evaluation is that this mechanism is still top-heavy to permit an effective and smooth enlargement process.

The second group of losers is that composed of the present small member countries of the EU. Whilst the big countries of Germany, UK,` France, Italy and Spain have had their weighted vote in the Council practically tripled, the other smaller member countries had seen their weighted vote little more than doubled. This has effectively given the larger countries a controlling position in the Council where three big countries can on their own veto any decision even within an enlarged Community of 27 countries.

The winners are clearly the five big countries above mentioned. They kept veto control over matters close to their interest. Taxation, social security and defence were veto reserved matters` fiercely defended by Tony Blair. Free trade in cultural related goods (including media rights) was a no go area for the French. Immigration was a restricted` area for the Germans whilst distribution of regional aid was such an economically important matter for Spain that it agreed only to lift its veto rights thereon after 2007.

Apart from these reserved matters the big countries structured their weighted votes within the Council to ensure that they can effectively block any decision against their particular country`s interest even within an enlarged Community.` In compensation they have watered down their representation within a weakened Commission.

Applicant member countries in the east and Cyprus may at first sight be considered to fall on the winning side as the Nice Treaties seems to put an unofficial entry date for the first group as the 1st of January 2004. This is unofficial and purely indicative and clearly subject to the Nice Treaties not foundering on disfavour at the European Parliament and the parliaments of the present member countries.

Just as a taste of what may be in store was given by the Finnish President Paavo Lipponen who expressed that he was `not at all satisfied with the result` whilst the Portuguese Minister for Europe Seixas de Costa said the EU `stayed very far from what would be needed for` enlargement`.

Also ominous is the decision to hold a further Inter-Governmental Conference in 2004 to decide` about the re-allocation of responsibilities among` the three major EU institutions i.e. Council, Commission and European Parliament. Although declarations have been made that this should not be an obstacle to enlargement,` reality tends to be different and it seems unlikely that enlargement would proceed before conclusion of the new ICG.` So slippage in the enlargement process to 2005 is well on the cards.

And where does this leave Malta as an applicant country` As well predictable Malta has been allocated the lowest weight of votes both in the Council and in the Commission. But what is particularly ominous was not being placed at least at par with other small countries with population of under 1 million i.e. Luxembourg and Cyprus. We have` been placed in a class of our own right at the bottom of the scale!

What I found insulting to my intelligence is proclamations made by the Prime Minister` that our lobbying secured for Malta an additional parliamentary seat from the four originally proposed in the French draft though dismay was expressed that we have not been allocated 6 members as Cyprus and Luxembourg.

If this resulted from our lobbying than we have very poor lobbying indeed. Because this additional Parliamentary seat was clinched at the expense of the loss of one vote in the Council where it carries much more weight. Whilst orignially we were with three votes on par with Cyprus and Luxembour in the revised draft awarding Malta` the extra parliamentary seat,` Cyprus and Luxembourg where awarded an additional vote in the Council whilst Malta stayed on its own with 3 votes. So with a population just 50,000 less than Luxembourg we have one vote less in the Council and one` seat less in Parliament, whilst Cyprus has` the same number of seats in the Council and Parliament as Estonia notwithstanding that the latter has a population double that of Cyprus. Clearly Cyprus had much more effective lobby from Greece whereas the Italians pay little more than lip service to our interests.

But does this really matter` In effect it does not. With three or four votes our position remains the same, except notionally. It remains ineffective and without influence. Our right to nominate a Commissioner will be short lived and in any event any Commissioner we might nominate will be surplus to true requirement and is likely to be allocated areas of trivial importance.

So rather than closing the case for Malta`s membership in the EU the Nice Summit re-inforces the argument that as the only candidate country that has no political motivations for joining the EU, Malta should consider all its alternatives in a cool pragmatic matter. The case for Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Monaco, San Marino, Lichtenstein or Andorra in the Mediterranean is by no means closed.

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