EU reform deadlocked after small states revolt

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The Independent Online

A battle between Europe's large and small states has left attempts to streamline the workings of the European Union in the balance after a two-day summit ended in deadlock on two central issues.

A battle between Europe's large and small states has left attempts to streamline the workings of the European Union in the balance after a two-day summit ended in deadlock on two central issues.

Despite agreement on the need to allow the emergence of a multi-speed Europe and to scrap the national veto in new areas of decision-making, talks were deadlocked on some of the most fundamental problems facing EU leaders.

After a dinner in Biarritz on Friday hosted by the French President, Jacques Chirac, leaders of Europe's small countries strained to contain their anger at what was seen as an attempt by the EU's big member states to gang up on them. "The dinner was marked by very firm, very lively and sometimes passionate exchanges," said the Luxembourg Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, whose attempt to put a positive gloss on the row was that countries had "learnt to to talk with a lot of frankness".

At the heart of the dispute was a claim by Mr Chirac that the determination of small countries to keep their level of influence in the European Commission could be holding up enlargement to the east.

The summit was the last big staging post before EU leaders are due to amend Europe's treaty at a gathering in Nice in December.

Decision-making in the 15-member bloc is sclerotic and there is consensus on the need for reform before Europe starts to admit as many as 12 or 13 new members.

Each country has a right to nominate one person to the European Commission, while big member-states send two. With 20 commissioners at present, the EU's executive body is already unwieldy and includes several portfolios where the workload is light and the commissioner has little power.

But attempts to cap the number of commissioners has opened a hornet's nest.

Two scenarios are envisaged. The first, and most likely, is for the big countries to give up the right to send one of their commissioners, in exchange for greater voting power in the Council of Ministers.

At present there are big imbalances and Germany, which has a population of more than 80 million, has 10 votes in the council, while Luxembourg, which has just over 400,000 nationals, has two votes. Big countries such as Italy want sweeping changes and a system where voting strengths range from three and 33, reflecting population size. With more decisions destined to be taken by majority voting, nations' voting power is ever more important.

But France infuriated small countries by suggesting a more radical step, under which the number of commissioners would be capped, probably at 12. Under this scheme, countries would have a representative on the commission only on a rotation system.

Led by the Netherlands and Belgium, the smaller countries rebelled in Biarritz. The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, argued for the need "to keep one commissioner per country, so that everyone is represented". As the mood soured, Portugal's Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, added that "among the important balances in the EU is that between big and small states".

Diplomats recalled that similar problems arose during the last treaty negotiation in Amsterdam in 1997 and were too difficult to resolve. With less than two months to the Nice summit, the gulf is as big as ever.

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