Europe's voting reform will shift power balance. Little attention
has been paid to the most critical:
the reform of EU decision-making procedures.
This lack of scrutiny is astounding. Decision-making rules are at the heart of any constitution.
By Richard Baldwin and Mika Widgren, Financial Times June 23 2003
The authors are professors of economics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva
and at the Turku School of Economics in Finland respectively
The European Union's draft constitution proposes radical reforms of the EU's institutions - more sweeping than those in the Single European Act and the Maastricht and Nice Treaties combined. Many reforms have been debated but little attention has been paid to the most critical: the reform of EU decision-making procedures. This lack of scrutiny is astounding. Decision-making rules are at the heart of any constitution. Most EU laws are adopted by majority voting. These laws are binding in all member states - including those that opposed them.
Our research demonstrates that the constitution's rules would make it much easier to pass EU laws, improve the EU's decision-making efficiency and would shift a great deal of power to the four largest members: Germany, France, Britain and Italy.
The increased decision-making efficiency stems from reform of majority voting in the Council of Ministers. Instead of the Nice Treaty's complex system, the Council would pass EU laws when half the members, representing at least 60 per cent of the EU population, vote for it. This would make it easier to achieve a winning majority in the Council.
Under the Nice rules, only about 2 per cent of all conceivable coalitions constitute a qualified majority. Under the Constitution's rules, over a fifth of all coalitions will achieve that goal.
Such a change primarily benefits the European Commission. It has a monopoly right to propose legislation. This right - which amounts to a "pre-veto" over legislative ideas that it dislikes - gives the Commission influence over the shape of EU laws.
On each law every member in the Council has particular concerns. The law that passes does not have to address all these concerns - only those of countries representing at least half of the members and 60 per cent of the population. With so many ways to form a winning coalition, the Commission will have more choice over which concerns it pays attention to.
One hopes that the Commission will act in the best interests of Europe, of course. But constitutions should be about power, not hope.
The European Parliament also gains. The constitution would strengthen its power over EU legislation in two ways. First, it would require parliamentary approval for most EU laws, including many that are now decided only by the Council. Second, the greater decision-making efficiency means legislation will be passed more quickly.
In contrast, the Council of Ministers loses. It does not decide which proposals it votes on - that is the Commission's job. Making it easier to find a winning coalition reduces the Council's influence on what is passed. After all, when many alternative winning coalitions are possible in the Council, the coalitions can be played off against each other - either by the Commission with its "pre-veto" power or by the parliament with its actual veto.
The reforms now contained in the draft constitution were deemed so sensitive they were rejected at the summits in Amsterdam in 1997 and Nice in 2000. So does their inclusion in the draft constitution indicate a change of heart among EU leaders? Probably not. Once it was clear that Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's convention would produce a single draft constitution, many member states decided the convention was not the place to fight the changes. The isssue is bound to emerge again at this year's intergovernmental conference, where the member states are in charge.
The new rules are good for Europe but they have complex implications. Once EU leaders begin to appreciate these, they are likely to reject the draft constitution, or at least many of its proposals.