UK demands huge shake-up for Europe

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Indy Politics

Britain will propose revolutionary changes to the European Union today that could lead to the appointment of an influential new leader by prime ministers.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will call for a drastic overhaul of the EU's decision-making bodies that would entrench the powers of governments and downgrade the European Commission's role.

Some EU governments, sidelined in the American-led war on terrorism and increasingly at odds with the foreign policies of President Bush, feel the need for a single voice to speak for Europe. In a keynote speech in The Hague, Mr Straw will argue for important changes to the way decisions are made.

His intervention comes ahead of next week's convention to review how Europe should adapt after 2004, when it is due to admit up to 10 new countries. It marks a clear attempt to put Britain's ideas at the heart of the debate on Europe's future, and to strengthen the Council of Ministers, the body in which member states take decisions. It reflects a growing confidence, gained from alliance-building around Europe, that Britain's vision is close to the EU's centre of gravity and that the heyday of federalism is past.

Mr Straw's speech will argue that there is a "gulf of understanding between the EU and its peoples" and that there needs to be "better decision-making, better democracy and better delivery."

In a statement of the primacy of governments over the unelected European Commission, Mr Straw will argue that "democratic accountability lies first and foremost with the Council". But he will also admit that this powerful body, little-known outside Brussels, needs urgent reform. This, he hopes, will be at the centre of the convention into the future of Europe, led by the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing,

At present, ministers from each of the 15 member states sit in specialist councils, meeting regularly in Brussels or Luxembourg to take decisions in a host of areas from agriculture to foreign affairs. These are chaired by the minister from the country holding the EU presidency (currently Spain), which rotates every six months.

With 15 ministers around the table, this system is already becoming sclerotic, and Mr Straw will argue that, as the EU expands, there will be an "ever-increasing burden on the presidency system".

Under the Straw proposal, each council would elect a president to serve for two and a half years, providing much more continuity than the current six-month span. The presidents of each council would also sit on a new, powerful steering committee, which would have the job of co-ordinating the whole range of policy areas.

Mr Straw will raise the prospect that heads of government who meet at summits could choose a chairman – either a current or a former head of government – who could become the most powerful figure in the EU. Finally, the Council would set priorities in an annual work programme.

While the Government says that it also wants to strengthen the European Commission, that is unlikely to be the end result of the Straw proposals, and one Whitehall source said that "ultimately it is the Council that is running the show."

Britain wants a smaller, leaner European Commission and, although no figures will be mentioned, envisages a team of about a dozen. And it wants to beef up the commitment to subsidiarity, a concept under which the EU should only undertake tasks that cannot be performed better at a national level.

Mr Straw would like to see either a second chamber of the European Parliament to police this concept, or the European Court of Justice being given new powers to strike down legislation that breaches the principle.

Simon Murphy, the leader of Labour's MEPs, hailed the ideas as "nothing short of revolutionary." They would "radically change the way governments do business in Europe", he added.