The big picture: a short guide to EU negotiations

This year is a decisive one for the EU. Not in the way every year is declared decisive by newspapers writing their New Year’s editorials, but in a very real way:

  • This year and the following, nine countries will be holding referendums on the EU Constitution and twelve others will ratify by a parliamentary vote. With a French ‘no’ now looking dangerously likely and increasingly eurosceptic populations all over the continent, governments struggle to prove to their voters that they stand firm for the “national interests” by getting less and less flexible at the negotiation table. Still, voters also expect them to make progress on getting the Union more in line with often contradictory national preferences. Whatever way governments find to eventually square this circle, the only predictable thing is that “Brussels” will be blamed for any drawbacks.
  • There are the negotiations on the Financial Perspectives 2007-2013, which will set the directions of EU policy-making and spending for seven years to come. As there are net contributors that want to decrease spending, whereas new members want to receive structural funds and agricultural subsidies, old member states want to keep current structural funds and agricultural subsidies, and Britain wants to keep its rebate, negotiations will not be easy. Especially so as, in the light of upcoming elections and referendums, the ‘window of opportunity’ to reach an agreement is small and close: some three weeks in May or April, according to Budget Commissioner Grybauskait?.
  • There are the negotiations on reform of the Stability and Growth Pact which, to the relief of some and to the horror of others, was de facto suspended by the Council in November last year. An agreement on a softer pact was reached by Finance Ministers last Sunday, so it looks like giants Germany and France have won the battle against firmly squeaking Austria, Finland and the Netherlands. Although no one knows yet what price was paid for the deal. For instance, Bengt Karlsson’s Euroblog points to an article in Die Welt suggesting that Germany has agreed no longer to ask for a reduction of the EU budget in return for support for this deal on the stability pact.
  • There is the ongoing uncertainty about the economic situation and the pressure this puts on governments to choose between short term popularity and long term necessities to reform (the Lisbon Agenda). Trade unions demonstrated in Brussels last week against the so-called “Bolkestein Directive” [subscr.] on creating an internal market for services in the EU. Proponents [pdf] point to the fact that services account for 66% of GDP and about 75% of employment in the European Union, and say that liberalising the services market could create up to 600,000 jobs. But although the so-called “country-of-origin principle”, which allows service providers to work everywhere in the EU under the legal conditions of their home country, does not apply to national laws on working conditions, opponents maintain that the proposal amounts to “social dumping” and a “race to the bottom”. The French government, squirmish as it already is about winning the Constitution referendum, has joined their side, and even the new Commission seems to be backtracking.

Additional strain comes from the enlargement with ten countries which are relatively poor but have much more flexible economies than the old member states – and different views on many of the old EU’s accepted truths.

The problem with the public debate on all these issues (and one of my own hobby horses) is that it is so often confined to national spheres. So when the Council chose not to enforce the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact on France and Germany after they breached the 3% public deficit ceiling, the media and public opinion in the Netherlands were upset because big countries were let off the hook, whereas media in the UK [subscr.] and France pointed out that the rules were stupid. Both sides were disappointed with the EU but for opposite reasons – and both were equally convinced their own position was the most sensible one.

This pattern is common with contentious EU decisions: Public debates in individual Member States take place within historically and culturally determined frameworks of “acceptable” arguments. As a result, common arguments from one Member State do not reach another where they could have served as a new argument in the debate (where it would have been of interest if only for the fact that this is a European, not a national, decision being taken). National politicians join the national chorus in order to stay in tune with their voters, but have to go on negotiating on policies where common EU action is expected.

The result is that the compromises they reach in this way are not accepted by voters, who remain unfamiliar with the arguments from other countries and only see results that differ from the outcomes of the debates at home. EU decision-making appears distant and intransparent even if, in reality, every effort was done to make it as transparent as possible. National politicians who took the decision have an interest in conserving this myth, as it allows them to escape responsibility by pointing to “Brussels”. Some of the EU’s legal constructions seem designed to keep it this way, for instance when the European Commission is made responsible for things it does not have the means to control (like EU spending, 80% of which is done by Member State governments).

So what we need in order to hold those really responsible to account, is better knowledge of what goes on at the EU level and in other Member States, and more (informed!) media involvement (another hobby horse).

The table below is an attempt to a contribution. It lists and colour codes for every Member State, as well as I could, its QMV voting weight in the Council under the Nice Treaty, whether it is a net contributor or recipient of EU funds (relative to its GNI), whether it is a member of the eurozone, fulfills the 3% budget deficit condition of the Stability Pact, is a supporter of a strict or a weaker Stability Pact (a position which often relates to its deficit condition), and its general position on the Common Agicultural Policy, market liberalisation, on the integrationalist vs. intergovenmentalist debate in EU constitutional matters, and on its position vis-a-vis the United States and Europe’s role in world.

I hope it will help identifying patterns in voting behaviour or in trying to predict how a particular country might vote on specific issues. I will try to expand and improve the table in the near future. Any comments are of course more than welcome.

EU position table

sources: Eurostat 2003, European Commission

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