Belgian IGC Play-by-Play

Yes, I’ve managed to kick my recent Danish fixation. And yes, that EU Constitutional Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) got underway this past weekend, starting with a one-day EU summit meeting on Saturday attended by heads of state and/or heads of government of all 15 current EU members, the 10 members-states which will join the EU at the beginning of next May, and 3 other states slated to join somewhat later as well (namely Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey). They were welcomed by current EU President Silvio Berlusconi, who called for an “act of will” from out of the assembled delegations, to come up with a version of the Constitution acceptable to all by Christmas. As President, Berlusconi got to speak first, and got to speak a little longer, and he was followed by five minutes’ remarks from European Commission president Romano Prodi, then European Parliament president Pat Cox, then from leaders of each of the 28 national delegations. “After everyone had spoken, basically nothing had been said, much less discussed,” comments Die Zeit’s article on the proceedings, Strength-of-Will, At Least up until Christmas, which, although I’m indebted to it for many of the above details, I found otherwise disappointing in its low quotient of actual analysis.

Maybe it was just too early to be able to say anything truly profound. Those heads of state/government couldn’t hang around for long – they’re a busy bunch of Euro-men and -women – meaning that it was their representatives, generally the foreign ministers, who were left behind to roll up their sleeves and start getting into the details. I’ve found good coverage about this part – the rest of the story, so to speak – in a series of articles from the Belgian on-line Gazet van Antwerpen.

(But first a quick note from another source I consulted, also Belgian but this time French-language, namely La Libre Belgique’s preparatory article to the convention from last Friday entitled A Conference Full of Uncertainties. That article is more of a primer on what’s supposed to go on at the IGC, and why it has been called in the first place. (It poses, and answers for its readers, questions with an elevated smart-ass content like “What is this Intergovernmental Conference, and why convoke it [i.e. in the first place]?”) What was valuable for me is what you can find over on the right in the green side-bar; in fact, I stand corrected by La Libre Belgique, as that side-bar speaks of the common position the three countries of the Benelux have formed for themselves coming into the IGC. In particular, that common position actually supports the reforms proposed to the Commission by the draft Constitution, namely to have 15 “A” (i.e. voting) Commissioners and 15 “B” (non-voting) commissioners to preserve the Commission’s ability to act, meaning that smaller countries will sometimes find themselves without voting Commissioners. What’s remarkable about this common stand is that all three of these are of course small countries. In my previous discussion, here, about Denmark’s approach to the IGC I had maintained that virtually every small country was against this reform, preferring “one nation, one [voting] Commissioner.” Now it seems that that is not true, i.e. that Denmark abandoned not an isolated position among small countries, but indeed a position in which it had some company, when it switched over on the eve of the IGC to advocating “one nation, one Commissioner.”)

Anyway, after the five-minute speeches Die Zeit described, the big bosses departed and left their ministers behind, In the Clinch, as our first Gazet van Antwerpen article (from Sunday) so aptly describes it. Things then got difficult real quick, according to Belgian foreign minster Louis Michel. Here is a list of the guilty parties, which drove Michel to exasperation by their refusal to grant the work of the Constitutional Convention proper respect: Spain, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Finland. “Thanks for all your effort, Giscard,” they seemed to want to say, “but we’d just as soon stay with the institutional arrangements made in the year 2000 Treaty of Nice. (By the way, ever wonder what happens if/when this Constitution fails to be ratified? Lots of bad things, but in the pure legal sense EU arrangements revert back to the latest ratified revision to them, which is indeed the Treaty of Nice. In this I’m quoting from Berlusconi’s own remarks at the IGC opening ceremony.) At issue was the allocation of Commissioners, but also of votes in the European Council. You might recall from my previous entry here the discussion about the (excessively?) favorable voting-weights from Nice that Poland, along with Spain, is fighting to retain, supposedly being ready to blow up the entire IGC with its veto (and Poland isn’t even an EU member yet, strictly speaking!) if it does not get its way. But Louis Michel’s blood pressure is already rising; GVA quotes him as saying “There was already months of exchange of thoughts about the difficult points at the [Constitutional] Convention. How are we now suddenly supposed to come up with something better?”

Things, then, are already looking difficult. But fear not: EU fireman Guy Verhofstadt (who is prime minister of Belgium) is soon planning to hit the road on a “diplomatic offensive” to meet with various EU heads of government to get some progress going at the IGC, or so according to the GVA’s follow-on article (of today) Government Conference: Verhofstadt Prepares a Diplomatic Forcing. Verhofstadt’s plan is somewhat obvious (if only because things always seem to turn out this way when the EU encounters difficult negotiations): If the ministers at Rome can do nothing but squabble, then simply take away their authority, their room to maneuver, and instead iron things out at further EU heads-of-government summits. There’s already supposed to be one of those, in Brussels, later on this month; now the talk is of adding yet another (presumably in Italy) for November – all this in addition to the end-of-presidency summit in Rome in December, which is where Italy fondly hopes to be able to stage the signing of the final-form Constitution, as another Treaty of Rome.

So what are the ministers in Rome supposed to do in the meantime, if they are stripped of any meaningful role? The answer to that might very well be “exerting financial pressure/squirming under financial pressure.” Another way to unblock the stoppage at the IGC is to let everyone remember who pays the bills within the EU, and who receives the money. The Commission is also planning to have the EU’s financial planning for 2006-2112 completed by December; in Poland in particular, says the article, they are said to already hear barely-muted threats from Germany and France that Poland could suffer financially if she refuses to behave at the IGC. The Commission is already worried enough about this to send out a spokesman to say “The IGC must judge the draft Constitution on its own merits.”

Fat chance of that, if further stagnation threatens. As our friend Lous Michel put it, “The new members must comprehend that they can’t have the butter, the money for the butter, and all the rest at the same time.” And just today Poland’s premier Leszek Miller was due in Brussels to have a little chat there with Guy Verhofstadt.

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