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Enlargement Problems

Article by Dick Leonard

March 21, 2007

Fears that the ‘big bang’ enlargement of the European Union from 15 to 25 (and later to 27) members – without the adoption of the constitutional treaty – would lead to gridlock in EU decision-making have proved unfounded, or at least greatly exaggerated. This is the overall conclusion of a major research report published earlier this month by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

Entitled Old Rules, New Game: Decision-making in the Council of Ministers after the 2004 Enlargement, the study is written by Sara Hagemann and Julia De Clerck-Sachsse. Their research was based on an extensive analysis of voting records and Council minutes and on interviews with 52 EU officials, diplomats and outside experts.

The two authors have compared the legislative output of the Council of Ministers over two periods of 32 months – one immediately before enlargement, the other immediately after. Their overall conclusion is that there is no evidence of a significant reduction in efficiency in decision-making.

This does not mean that enlargement has had no significant impact on the way the EU operates. Six significant trends are identified.

1). Although there was an immediate general drop in the amount of legislation passed, the annual adoption rate had almost ‘recovered’ by the end of 2006.

2). The percentage of legislation passed under qualified majority voting has increased. The year 2006 had the highest percentage of legislation passed under co-decision.

3). The level of disagreement recorded officially in voting has not increased.

4). This disagreement now increasingly takes the form of governments making a formal statement of dissent rather than recording adverse votes which would prevent consensus.

5). Larger member states, which used to be the most likely to oppose legislation, have yielded this role to a group of medium-sized members.

6). Contrary to expectations, there is no difference in the frequency with which northern and southern states have opposed legislation.

What has definitely changed since 2004 is not the number of decisions which have been made, but the manner in which they have been arrived at. Meetings of ministers and officials now last significantly longer, and the atmosphere has become markedly more formal, as – with larger numbers involved – the participants get to know each other less well. There has also been an increase in the reading out of prepared statements setting out a government’s views rather than more spontaneous discussion.

Almost certainly more significant has been the increased role played by mediating bodies in efforts to achieve consensus. The brokering activities of – the Commission, the Council Secretariat, and, in particular, the Presidency, are now much more evident, as are those of senior figures in the European Parliament, who lobby their own governments.

The member states – both old and new – have modified their behaviour over recent years. The older ones are now less ready to press their national viewpoint when it is clearly in a minority, while the newer ones have become more assertive. By the end of 2006, there was, in this respect, no difference between the two categories.

Consciously or unconsciously, virtually all the actors seem to have resolved to act more circumspectly in order to prevent the gridlock which many had predicted.

If the situation has not noticeably deteriorated due to enlargement, and the non-adoption of the constitutional treaty (TCE). there has certainly been no improvement, and the positive advantages which the treaty offered have not, of course, materialized. The fields which have suffered most have been External Relations and Justice and Home Affairs, both of which are still governed to a considerable extent by unanimity.

The constitutional treaty proposed that 23 existing policy areas should be switched to qualified majority voting, as should 19 new areas opened up by the Treaty.

Together with the proposals for an EU Foreign Minister and permanent President of the Council of Ministers, and the change of voting weights from a triple- to a double-majority voting system, these are the key institutional or procedural improvements contained in the TCE. It is very much to be hoped that whatever document emerges from the current efforts of the German presidency will include these provisions.

Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.

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