The conflict will confirm the views of those who thought the Treaty on European Union was only the beginning of a struggle over the powers of EU institutions. It will, however, alarm those in Britain who believed that the treaty had settled the issue once and for all.
The Council secretariat, the body which services meetings of ministers from EU states, has sent representatives in Brussels a secret report on new rules of procedure drawn up by the European Parliament. It says that they go much further than the ministers had foreseen, or can tolerate. It says that the only alternatives are to reject them in total or fight each one by one.
The Parliament is still working out the implications of the new powers it won in the Maastricht treaty. An official told journalists last week that it might have the right to vote on a Gatt agreement once it was negotiated, and added that 200 pieces of legislation would have to be reconsidered.
The change is threatening to cause chaos, with the Parliament asking for new Commission proposals on some directives, and demanding the right to reconsider others. With an election coming up next year, the institution wants to raise its profile by provoking both the member states and the Commission, Eurodeputies say.
Though the treaty gives the Parliament new powers, it fell far short of the extension that legislators wanted, because states like Britain wanted to limit their influence.
The treaty was also supposed to halt the move towards a single federal structure by dividing policy areas into three separate 'pillars'. All the EU institutions are involved in one set of decisions, broadly those concerning social and economic issues which the EU inherited from the European Community. In the other two, security and defence issues on the one hand, and home and justice affairs on the other, action was to be largely the preserve of member states.
But this divide already looks shaky and artificial less than a month after the treaty came into force. The Commission, the Parliament and the Court of Justice have moved smartly into immigration, a new area of policy, and are making moves on foreign policy.
The Commission, the EU's executive bureaucracy, yesterday proposed a new legal convention on external frontiers, using the treaty's provisions on a common policy in home affairs and justice. The Commission said it wanted to bring the European Court of Justice into immigration policy, a move that is permitted by the treaty. But several member states including Britain will fight this, a European diplomat said yesterday.
'This is precisely what we didn't want,' said the diplomat. A British official said that London would prevent any attempt to bring the three pillars together, extending the influence of EU institutions.
The Commission also put forward a new regulation on a common visa policy, which defines countries whose citizens need visas to get into the EU. The Parliament must be consulted on this issue.
These moves are partly intended to clear the way for the EU's internal borders to be removed, following a decision by the Parliament to take the Commission to court for failing to get passport controls lifted in all the member states. The convention on external frontiers seeks to bypass a row between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar which has held up an earlier version.
Both the Commission and the Parliament are also trying to move into the field of foreign policy. Hans van den Broek, External Affairs Commissioner, attended a meeting on Monday of the Western European Union, which is to become the EU's defence body. And, in a dispute over its powers, the Parliament has threatened to hold hostage money intended for the Israeli- occupied territories.
Both the new Parliament power- grab and the Commission's moves are evidence that the limits on the power of EU institutions which were put in place by the Maastricht treaty are proving weak.Reuse content