Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The secret constitution

The talks on the constitution, carried out by senior civil servants from the member states, seems to have reached a number of conclusions yesterday, although no one knows what they are, and precious few newspapers have bothered to report them.

One such, The Irish Examiner, which is taking a special interest because of the Irish presidency and the fact that the talks are on its doorstep, reports fears that the changes agreed make it harder for people to petition changes to EU law and would give ministers the last word on budget matters in the event of a row in the parliament. The Irish government was accused of doing too much of the work behind closed doors.

Under the present draft of the constitution, a million citizens can request a law be introduced relating to anything mentioned in the document. Now, however, the petition will also have to come from a specific number of member countries – not that it makes much difference anyway. There is no provision for “citizens” to ask for a law to be removed.

More crucially, the officials were unable to agree changes to the way the EU budget is finalised. Under current arrangements, this is the responsibility of the European parliament but under proposals from the Irish presidency, if the parliament cannot muster a 60 percent vote in favour, the council or member states' ministers would adopt it instead.

That would rob the parliament of most of its limited power, its only real power being to block the budget. As a result, we see the extraordinary situation of the European parliament voting against the constitution.

EP president Cox, meanwhile, is calling for the constitution to be completed before the European Parliament elections on June 11, but Irish European Affairs Minister Dick Roche told him it was unlikely to be finished in time.

But the main concern at the moment is the way the IGC negotiations are being conducted behind closed doors so the general public does not know what exactly is going on. We will be none the wiser when member state foreign affairs ministers meet on May 17 and 18 next, when they will discuss the number of commissioners and increasing the number of issues that can be agreed by qualified majority rather than unanimity.

They are expected to agree that every country will retain a commissioner until perhaps 2014, when it will be reduced to 18, meaning every country will lose its commissioner in rotation once every third term. If the ministers can agree on these issues the only major one left will be the voting system – but that, as we know, is the killer.

Everyone seems to be assuming that the final summit in on June 17 and 18 (Waterloo Day) will result in agreement, but at this stage, it would be unwise to consider it a done deal.

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