EC members aim to curb bureaucrats: Foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg want to show that they mean business in promoting the principle of subsidiarity, writes Tim Jackson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RADICAL changes in the way the European Community comes to decisions could be made by foreign ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg today.

Although one of the reasons European heads of government are meeting in Birmingham later this month is to find ways to make the Community machinery more open, and to scotch claims that they are trying to build an interventionist super-state, today the foreign ministers will consider a preliminary attempt to improve the EC's image by curbing the powers of the Commission in Brussels.

The temptation to approve the proposal will be great. Strict new rules preventing EC bureaucrats from dreaming up new initiatives could help to calm opposition to the Maastricht treaty on the Conservative back benches, and could allow the Danish government to call a second referendum on the treaty.

The hastily drafted proposal, approved last week by ambassadors from the 12 member states in Brussels, would undermine the 30-year-old principle that the European Commission has the right to make proposals while the Council of Ministers, representing the EC's member states, makes the final decisions.

The ministers will be asked today to give to national governments the right to stop Commission officials from working on new legislation if they believe the result could be achieved as well by legislation at national level.

A government that got wind of a proposal it did not like - for instance, tighter limits on the quality of drinking water - would be able to stop the proposal in its tracks if it could win the support of six other member states.

Analysts applaud the ministers' aim to show that they mean business in promoting the principle of subsidiarity. But there are fears that if today's proposals are more than window-dressing, they may set a worrying precedent.

Statistical breakdowns of recent EC legislation show that less than 10 per cent of the Community's decisions were genuinely initiatives of the Commission itself. Although national governments find it easy to blame 'Brussels' for unpopular new measures, far more EC law comes into existence because other governments asked for it or as a consequence of general plans laid down by the Council of Ministers. When the Commission presents its own ideas - it lays out a legislative programme every January - it usually consults national governments beforehand to ensure they will make sense and be practical to operate.

If EC bureaucrats fear that they could be forced to abandon an idea even before it has been fully formed, critics say, they may be tempted to work underground, keeping their ideas secret as long as possible and then presenting them to national governments as almost- finished legislation.

That could reduce, rather than increase, the quality of work done in Brussels, and could make the bureaucracy less rather than more open

Among the other items on the foreign ministers' two-day agenda will be proposals by Jacques Delors for a 30 per cent real-terms increase in the Community's pounds 46bn annual budget. British officials said last night that the Commission is due to come forward with new proposals to reflect complaints by national governments that the planned rise is unrealistic in the middle of a recession, when public finances are already stretched.

Meanwhile, a row is simmering over Britain's pounds 2bn annual rebate from its contributions to the EC budget. The government had hoped that discussion of the rebate, which has been extended twice already, could be confined to the details of how it is calculated.

Germany demanded at an EC finance ministers' meeting last week, however, that the entire principle of the rebate should be reopened, complaining that its net contributions to the Community's coffers are three times those of Britain after the rebate is received.

A Foreign Office spokesman indicated that Douglas Hurd is likely to maintain the government's line. 'From our point of view,' he said, 'the rebate's size and existence are non-negotiable.'