The future of Europe

As EU leaders gather in Turin for the Inter-Governmental Conference, Tony Barber looks at where it can lead Europe

What is the Inter-Governmental Conference?

It is a set of negotiations among the European Union's 15 member-states on reforming EU institutions and revising the 1991 Maastricht treaty. It opens in Turin tomorrow. It is not just a single meeting. There will be scores of them on specific issues over the next 12 to 18 months.

EU foreign ministers will have negotiating sessions once a month; their representatives will meet every week. Amendments to the Maastricht treaty will come into force after they are ratified in member-states by parliaments or by referendums.

What is its aim?

It is to make EU institutions and working procedures more efficient so that, early in the next century, the EU can incorporate new members ranging from Cyprus and Malta to the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe. Fifteen or 20 years from now, the EU could have as many as 27 members.

Institutions such as the Commission, the EU's executive arm, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers must be reformed to cope with representatives from all these new states, otherwise they will get hopelessly bogged down. The conference will also consider how to develop the EU's common foreign and security policy. Some states, notably the Nordic countries, want the treaty amended to cover employment and environmental issues.

So it's tidying up the Maastricht treaty then?

No, there is much more at stake than that. If EU governments fail to settle the main questions of institutional reform, there is every chance that the admission of former Communist countries including the Baltic states, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia will be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. This would risk new divisions between western and eastern Europe. So this IGC is really about the EU's meeting an historic responsibility to eastern Europe.

Will the British beef crisis come up?

Quite likely, but like agricultural policies in general, it is not formally on the menu. However, to spell out why the Government supports decision- making through unanimous votes and opposes more majority voting, John Major may cite the way the EU overruled British objections and banned British beef. Britain will find itself alone if it tries to make beef a big issue at Turin. The meeting is mainly ceremonial and is expected to end with a 15-nation statement calling on the EU to improve its efficiency, raise its international profile and become closer to ordinary citizens.

Will the IGC decide whether to proceed with a single European currency?

European monetary union (EMU) is the ghost at the IGC banquet. Officially, it is not up for discussion, since the decision to create a single currency was taken at Maastricht. Countries that fulfil the criteria for EMU are to be named in early 1998, their national currencies are to be locked together in January 1999, and the euro is to go into circulation in 2002.

Unofficially, EMU is bound to influence the IGC talks. With almost all EU states finding it hard to meet the strict EMU conditions, doubts hang over whether the project can or should start on time. If it does not, the prospects for EU enlargement into central and eastern Europe may recede, since some governments argue that enlargement without EMU would spell the end of the EU's dream of "ever closer union".

Why is the IGC expected to last so long?

Apart from the fact that rewriting treaties takes time, some EU governments think it will be impossible to reach an accord while the Conservatives remain in power in Britain. The Government has adopted by far the most anti-integrationist position of any EU state.

There is some hope among the other 14 that should Labour win the next general election, due by spring 1997, the new British government would adopt a more constructive stance. However, the 14 harbour few illusions that Labour would go much further down the road of closer integration.

So will it be 14 against one at the IGC, with Britain the odd one out?

On some issues, such as the extension of "qualified majority voting" for making decisions in the Council of Ministers, Britain is clearly isolated. On other issues, however, Britain has allies. There are important variations in the views of the other 14 countries.

Britain and France, keen to emphasise that the IGC is a forum for national governments, joined forces to prevent the European Parliament from being represented. Germany supports Britain in resisting Swedish-led attempts to introduce a treaty amendment on employment. Greece insists on keeping a veto on foreign policy matters, France on immigration. The four neutral EU states - Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden - are cautious about efforts to forge a joint defence policy.

Is the IGC a step to a United States of Europe?

No. Such a goal is not supported by a majority of EU states, including Britain, France and Germany. However, while some states privately sympathise with Britain's public defence of national sovereignty, none shares Britain's almost total rejection of closer integration.

The most important Franco-German initiative was the recent proposal that countries which want to integrate more quickly than others should be allowed to do so without being blocked by slower members. This "two-speed Europe" could result in the emergence of an inner circle of states, led by France and Germany, but it would fall short of a single super-state.

Will Britain lose its veto?

Many countries are determined to end the requirement for unanimous votes in the Council of Ministers, which brings together national governments in areas such as foreign policy, taxation and judicial matters.

Britain is opposed but it may have to make concessions on this point if it is serious about wanting EU enlargement as soon as possible. It has the support of France and Germany in arguing that with the EU poised to take in a large batch of small countries, the biggest states must have more votes in the Council to reflect their size.

Will the Commission become more powerful?

With 20 members (one from each state, but two for Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain), the Commission is already cumbersome. A 27-member EU could in theory have 33 commissioners. A system of senior and junior commissioners is possible, or one in which not every country is always represented on the Commission. However, small EU states are determined not to lose their seat at the top table. A radical solution would be to let the Commission President choose his own team without regard to nationality.

And the Parliament?

The only directly elected EU body, it has strictly limited legislative authority: for instance, it has only limited power to scrutinise and change the EU budget. Influenced by Britain, France and others, the IGC is unlikely to grant the Parliament significant new powers, such as the right to take decisions in conjunction with the Council of Ministers. However, some enhancement of its role is likely to meet German-led criticisms that EU institutions need more democratic legitimacy.

The IGC may set an upper limit of 700 members for the Parliament (it has 626 now) as the EU expands. This will require reforms to the distribution of seats among member-states. Small states are determined not to lose out.

Will the EU's foreign policy change?

Most countries favour taking more decisions by majority voting, but Germany says consensus voting should remain for sensitive matters such as military missions. The IGC is likely to approve the creation of an EU foreign policy planning and analysis unit. The 15 may also approve the appointment of a foreign policy "figurehead" to represent the EU to the outside world. This would finally answer Henry Kissinger's scathing question: "When I want to speak with Europe, who do I call? What's the phone number?"

Will there be more integration in judicial matters?

Britain wants to restrict the role of the European Court of Justice and to ensure that judicial matters remain the province of national governments acting in unanimity. Other countries want to give the Commission a wider role and do more to harmonise judicial systems. All agree that drug trafficking and organised crime are international problems that must be tackled on an EU-wide basis.

Will there be a European army?

The main issue concerns the Western European Union (WEU), a 10-nation group that serves as a bridge between Nato and the EU. Pro-integration EU states want to incorporate the WEU into the EU. Britain opposes this, but wants to develop the WEU in parallel with the EU. The IGC is unlikely to take steps that undermine Nato's position.

Will the IGC succeed?

Some countries fear Britain will paralyse the IGC. But the lesson of previous EU negotiations is that a deal is always struck, usually with Britain yielding ground.

This time, a deal may require formal recognition that France, Germany and some other countries intend to form an inner circle of deeply integrated states. All other countries would be encouraged to join this group later, but Britain would not be allowed to block its emergence. So integration might proceed, and with it reform, but at the cost of creating a two- or even a multi-speed Europe.

'52

First meeting of the European Coal and Steel Community, made up of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. Initial aim is to underpin peace in Europe through economic integration.

'57

Treaty of Rome sets up the European Economic Community to create an "ever closer union among the peoples of Europe". Aim to create customs union with free trade and a common external trade policy.

'63

French President de Gaulle vetoes British membership of EEC. Negotiations handled for the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, by Edward Heath.

'67

The ECSC, the EEC and the European Atomic Energy Community merge to form the European Community.

'73

Britain joins the EC after a referendum campaign in which the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and Labour leader, Harold Wilson, play a key role. Republic of Ireland and Denmark join as well.

'81

'83

Greece joins: first step towards enlargement among Mediterranean states. Margaret Thatcher wins large rebate on British budget contributions.

'87

Single European Act comes into force, revising Treaty of Rome to create a single European market by end of 1992. Act favoured by Mrs Thatcher. High point of EU presidency of Jacques Delors.

'89

Turkey's application to join EU turned down.

'90

Former East Germany incorporated after German unification.

'91

Maastricht treaty of European Union provides for economic and monetary union (by 1999), common foreign policy, possibly common defence. Britain opted out of social chapter and monetary union timetable.

'92

European exchange rate crisis: Britain and Italy leave the exchange rate mechanism of the EMS. France manages to stay in

after massive

central bank intervention.

'94

Over next two years a string of states - Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia - formally apply for membership.

'95

Austria, Finland and Sweden join.

'96

Inter-Governmental Conference opens in Turin to review and amend Maastricht treaty. Will examine EU foreign and security policy as well as the role of European Parliament and more qualified majority voting at Council of Ministers.

'97

IGC expected to end this summer at Amsterdam summit, after British general election. EU budget arrangements due to be overhauled, including Common Agricultural Policy and structural funds programme.

'98

Membership talks due to start with Cyprus, Malta and some Eastern European states. Decision on which countries will join single currency.

'99

Final stage of monetary union planned with locking of currencies.

'02

Euro due to enter circulation alongside national banknotes, to become sole currency in participating states.

'00-05

Possible expansion of EU to between 17 and 20 members.

'05-20

Expansion of EU to 27 states or more.

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