Denmark Rejoins the EU’s Small Countries

Yes, its “Denmark Day,” but time now to go in a more serious direction, which is the Danish government’s approach to the EU Constitutional Intergovernmental Conference that opened this weekend in Rome. This event is naturally at the top of the Danish news, and is covered in all three leading nationwide, general-interest dailies, Politiken, Belingske Tidende, and Jyllands-Posten.

It turns out that there is important news to report, as it seems that Danish premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen has altered his government’s policy towards the draft Constitution in a notable way as the IGC begins.

The issue centers around what that draft Constitution proposes for the European Commission, specifically with regard to the number of its members. Right now there are twenty commissioners: one for each of the fifteen current member-states, plus a second one for the biggest states, namely Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Spain. Doing nothing in response to the addition of ten new member-states next May would mean a total of 30 commissioners (or perhaps 31 if, in this hypothetical scenario, you recognized Poland’s population size with a second Polish commissioner). But that clearly wouldn’t work; the Commission really corresponds more-or-less to the EU’s cabinet, as the commissioners are assigned control over the various departments (actually, “directorates-general,” or “DGs”) making up the EU bureaucracy, and there simply aren’t thirty DGs out there to allocate to everyone. Plus, sometimes the Commission is called upon collectively to debate issues and make decisions, and going from twenty to members to thirty or thirty-one is sure to make that harder.

It’s a fact often forgotten, but the original rationale of the Constitutional Convention and the draft Constitution that it produced last June was to prepare the EU to be able to cope with ten new members, mainly by making institutional changes to make sure its decision-making and execution processes did not become bogged down with the weight of all those new countries. So naturally the draft Constitution has a proposal to change the way things are done on the Commission. It proposes having thirty Commissioners, all right, but having only 15 of them at a time in “A-posts,” meaning that they get to vote and actively run DGs. The other 15 would sort of be their understudies, hanging around (and earning the juicy, tax-free Commissioner’s salary) but without any vote on the Commission (“interns with BMWs” I’ve seen this arrangement called elsewhere). But the 15 “B-Commissioners” wouldn’t stay that way forever, as there would be rotation in between the A-post and B-post ranks – but rotation skewered in such a way to ensure that the five largest countries’ Commissioners are always in “A-posts.”

The EU countries that tend not to like that idea are those which would find themselves every so often without a Commissioner in the “A” ranks, and so unable to vote on Commission business – what you could call the “small” countries, although they also include Poland but – up to now – not Denmark. (We’re talking here about the “one nation, one Commissioner” demand that was briefly mention in my recent treatment of Poland’s attitude going into the Rome IGC.) The common denominator of what these “small” countries want is that every one of the EU’s future 25 members be allowed to name a voting Commissioner, no matter what effect that might have on the Commissions ability to perform its business effectively. On the other side, the EU’s “big” countries don’t like this idea – not only because they want to protect the Commission against being overloaded, but mainly because most of them (Germany, France, and current EU president Italy, but certainly not the UK) have been trying to insist that the draft coming out of Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s Constitutional Convention be basically accepted as a whole, with no significant changes allowed to be made, so that the IGC can avoid getting bogged-down in difficult negotiations and the champagne-and-caviar stage of celebrating the approval of a final-form Constitution can come all the earlier.

From the descriptions in the main Danish on-line dailies, Denmark’s attitude towards the draft Constitution since its unveiling in May and June has been a little strange, more “big-country” than “small-country.” Politiken reports that Denmark has supported that draft without objection; Berlingske Tidende adds that Denmark decided not to make a fuss about the draft Constitution’s plan for the Commission because Danish leaders assumed that, in the end, the big countries would just get what they wanted anyway and, in any case, Denmark understood that it had effectively given up its right to always have a voting Commissioner at the time of the 2000 Nice Treaty.

But now the situation looks quite different; the big countries aren’t going to have their way at the IGC – meaning they can also forget about “no-touch” zones and limiting discussion. But there’s another thing catching prime minister Rasmussen’s attention, featured most prominently in the Berlingske Tidende: namely that in a Gallup poll commissioned and published last week by that newspaper, a strong majority of those Danes surveyed pronounced themselves against the proposals for the Commission given in the draft Constitution.

As Europe has seen, the Danish electorate even in the best of times has to be handled carefully when it comes to something that it will be called upon to approve in a referendum, as it likes to vote “No.” So the Danish government has finally gotten with the program; as the Berlingske headline puts it, “Denmark Has Now Joined the Small Countries’ Club.” Prime minister Rasmussen was quoted thusly in today’s Jyllands-Posten, “I believe that it means a lot for all, that it be made clear that all Commissioners are equal. It’s seldom that EU Commissioners vote, but there is also a lot of symbolism connected with the voting-right.”

I like the way he put that: “it’s seldom that EU Commissioners vote.” That’s quite correct; again, my formulation is that the European Commission is best likened to a cabinet – to the US President’s cabinet, say. Imagine if the President couldn’t just pick whom he wanted for cabinet posts – presumably on the basis of their expertise in the specific area of policy assigned. OK, you’re right, let’s not be so naive as to think it always happens that way, but if what the EU small countries are pushing for were translated into American terms, it would mean that there would have to be 50 cabinet members, one from each state.

In reality, the Commission generally does not exert its tremendous influence on EU affairs via collective decisions of the Commission – i.e. decisions voted upon by the Commissioners – but rather through the activities and influence of the individual commissioner in each area of policy: Franz Fischler on agricultural and fishery matters, Mario Monti on anti-trust and competition matters, Frits Bolkestein on internal market and taxation issues, Pascal Lamy on international trade relations, and so on. That’s all the more reason why, ideally and just as it is in the American system, each commissioner would be a recognized expert in the policy area he or she would be assigned to head (it would also help considerably if his/her ideas of where to go in that area corresponded with general EU opinion) – and the state whose nationality he or she happened to hold would be completely irrelevant. For Commissioners are supposed to go to Brussels to work for the general interest of the EU and not of their individual state; I believe that is even a provision in the oath they are required to take. In this light, the crass insistence from the small countries that they each get “their” Commissioner is ridiculous; they simply don’t get it.

Denmark did “get it,” which is why the country was so sanguine before the prospect of “losing” a Commissioner in the cause of making sure the Commissioner remained effective. (I have more doubts about its previous general stance of accepting the draft Constitution without reservation. Quite apart from the fact that as respected a publication as the Economist has recommended that the draft be sent straight to the trash heap, there are all sorts of provisions in the document that need to be examined closely, with a dubious eye. Was the Danish government simply distracted ever since the final version of the draft was unveiled in June, so that it couldn’t really give it a good examination? Distracted by what? Or has the Danish government simply been lazy? That’s hard to believe.) In other words, when it came to the Commissioners issue, Denmark was acting fairly reasonably. But “reason” won’t last long in the face of an electorate determined that its government not “lose their Commissioner.”

At least the Danish electorate is paying some attention, in an oblique way, to the question of a new Constitutional Treaty for Europe, just like the Polish electorate. (Which is not to say that many Danes have actually read the two hundred-plus page draft Constitution, even though it has of course been translated into all EU languages. Like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, that is likely to remain a tome that everyone refers to, but no one ever actually reads.) But once again, the end-effect is likely to not be so helpful toward the cause of a final-form Constitution coming out of this IGC that can be put with confidence to European governments and peoples for ratification.

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