|The European Parliament adopted the draft Constitution by slightly more than a two-thirds majority. MEPs, like national MPs, made a key contribution to the outcome of the Convention and they had no wish to call into question the consensus reached during its deliberations. Here then is a brief sketch of the future face of the EU institutions as proposed by the Convention.
In September 2003 Parliament adopted the draft European Constitution drawn up by the Convention on the Future of Europe by 335 votes in favour, 106 against and 53 abstentions, while commenting that 'not all of Parliament's demands concerning democracy, transparency and efficiency in the European Union were met'. MEPs took the view that 'to reopen the important compromises reached within the Convention would … jeopardise the progress made by the Convention in re-founding the Union'.
MEPs pointed out that the working method they had urged - a Convention holding its debates in public - had proved much more effective than the intergovernmental conferences which had painfully negotiated the previous reforms behind closed doors, resulting in the disappointing Amsterdam and Nice Treaties.
(To learn how the EU institutions currently operate - and hence to understand better the changes proposed in the draft Constitution - please see our notes on the other EU institutions.)
Two elected presidents and a foreign affairs minister
Under the draft Constitution, the President of the Commission would be elected by the European Parliament on a proposal by the European Council which must take account of the result of the European elections. From 2009, whatever the number of Member States, the Commission would be made up of its President, a Minister of Foreign Affairs with the rank of Vice-President, 13 Commissioners, and other Commissioners without voting rights, all appointed on an equal rotating basis between the Member States. Under this set-up, the Commission President will have a stronger political role as he or she can assign portfolios, appoint Commissioners and request the individual resignation of any of them. Otherwise, the central institutional role of the Commission is unchanged.
MEPs said that the election of the Commission President by Parliament would be 'an important step towards an improved system of parliamentary democracy at European level'. But they were concerned about the election of a more permanent President of the European Council. The six-monthly rotating presidency would be replaced by a longer-term President, elected by qualified majority of the members of the European Council, for a renewable term of two and a half years. Parliament took the view that the function of this new President should be strictly limited to chairing the European Council, to avoid possible conflicts with the Commission President or the future Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The Amsterdam Treaty had attempted to give a human face to the common foreign and security policy by creating a High Representative in the Council, a post which has been held to date by Javier Solana. But the coexistence of this new position with that of the Commissioner for External Relations has raised as many questions as it has answered. In future, the EU Foreign Affairs Minister would always be appointed by the European Council, but with the approval of the Commission President, and the Minister would also be one of the Commission Vice-Presidents. In this way he or she would be more accountable to the European Parliament, since all the Commissioners must be endorsed by the MEPs and there is the possibility of a motion of censure.
This 'Minister-Commissioner' would be responsible for overall EU foreign policy and would chair the Foreign Affairs Council which would from then on be separate from the General Affairs Council. Parliament hopes that this minister will give a higher profile to EU foreign policy. But in their concern for consistency with the other responsibilities of the Commission (development aid, trade policy, etc) the MEPs stress that the minister must be supported by a joint administration within the Commission.
A more transparent and more effective union
An increase in the use of qualified majority voting in the Council (and of codecision with Parliament) was crucial if an enlarged EU of 25 or more members was to be able to take decisions effectively. Transparency will also improve when the complex system of weighting of votes between the Member States is abandoned in favour of the double majority principle, which the Convention defined as half the Member States representing three-fifths of the population.
But MEPs believe that the progress made in the Convention must be consolidated by in future using qualified majority voting even more or, where the unanimity rule remains, introducing transitional rules on 'super-qualified' majorities. In addition, MEPs are pleased that certain aspects of judicial cooperation on criminal matters are now to be decided by qualified majority vote. Similarly, on foreign policy, when the Foreign Affairs Minister makes a proposal with the support of the Commission, the decision no longer has to be unanimous but can be by a special majority of two-thirds of the Member States representing three-fifths of the population.
For the areas which still require unanimity, there will be provision for a 'bridge', known as a 'passerelle'. This allows the Member States to decide (unanimously) to use the qualified majority system instead. The procedure may seem theoretical, even convoluted, but it has the advantage of allowing the system to evolve in future without cumbersome constitutional revisions. To Parliament's great regret, such revisions will also continue to require unanimity among the Member States.
Parliament would also have preferred that the various formations of the Council include a specific 'Legislative Council' which would always meet in public in its role of co-legislator. The Convention was not able to reach a consensus on this point. Thus the General Affairs Council, which among other things prepares the work of the European Council, will also be the legislative Council and in its legislative role it will hold meetings in public.
More powers for parliaments
MEPs and national MPs managed to conduct a fruitful dialogue in the course of the Convention's meetings. The final consensus owes much to their keenness to make the European institutions more democratic. For example, the draft Constitution increases the national parliaments' powers in monitoring subsidiarity (see our next note, under the heading Policy Areas).
The powers of the European Parliament have also been increased: for example, it will have to elect the Commission President, give its assent to common trade policy (which from now on will be subject to codecision) and approve any instances of closer cooperation.
But above all, the planned expansion of codecision will give Parliament extra legislative responsibilities. Codecision will now be the standard legislative procedure at European level (see our note on Codecision). Parliament and the Council will be on an equal footing as joint legislators in nearly 80 EU policy areas, including some parts of the common agricultural policy, as against about 40 areas at present. Parliament sees this is 'an essential step towards increasing the democratic legitimacy of the Union's activities'.
On the budget too, the draft Constitution has redealt the cards between the Council and Parliament, and Parliament has gained. The ceiling on own resources will be set by a European law adopted unanimously by the Council after consulting Parliament and must be ratified by the Member States according to their constitutional rules. But the detailed arrangements for determining these resources will be decided by qualified majority after approval by Parliament.
Turning to the multiannual financial framework (the current 'financial perspective'), unanimity will still be required for the first framework to be laid down after the Constitution comes into force. After that it will be decided by qualified majority after approval by Parliament. Finally, with regard to annual budgets, until now Parliament has had the last word only on what is known as 'non-compulsory' expenditure. The distinction between compulsory and non-compulsory will now be abolished, as MEPs wished. Parliament and the Council will have to try and reach an overall agreement but, in the event that they do not, Parliament will have the last word on total expenditure.