EU Heads of Government are presently trying to thrash out the detail of the draft treaty on an EU Constitution. There are a number of matters at issue, but perhaps at this stage the most fundamental relates to the respective voting levels attributable to each existing and soon-to-join member state and the manner in which decisions may be carried.
At a summit held at Nice in December 2000 a complex voting formula was agreed to specify the votes attributable to each existing and new member; this had the effect, well-discussed at the time, of not giving states a level of votes directly related to their respective populations. The principal reason for this was that certain states (that is to say, France) objected strongly to the idea that Germany, with by far the largest population (since reunification with the former East Germany), should have a greater number of votes than the other 'big three', namely France, the United Kingdom and Italy. As a result all of the 'big four' were allocated 29 votes each.
Two other states, Spain and aspiring-member Poland, were each allocated 27 votes. These two have significantly smaller votes than the 'big four', but are themselves much bigger in terms of population than any of the other actual or aspiring members.
This agreement was reached, as are most such decisions involving the EU, after very prolonged 'haggling' - and it was accepted at the time by all. A somewhat simplified and slanted interpretation of the current debate is given in this BBC article.
Since then, however, some of the implications which might flow from these voting weightings have begun to be realised. Being completely cynical, which of course I never am, certain countries (namely Germany and France) have realised that the Nice agreement, if followed, would deprive them of the ability to dictate, to all intents and purposes, the future course of EU policy - as they have almost always done in the past. To correct this 'mistake', it is now proposed by France and Germany that a 'double majority' formula be applied to future votes in which a simple majority of member states (13 of the enlarged 25-member EU) coupled with 60% of the total population of the EU would be required to carry or defeat any motion. Poland says this will give the 'large' countries too much power; it may also be forgiven for wondering if the 'prospectus' on which it was encouraged to join the EU was a false one.
Under the current six-month rotating EU Presidency, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is in the chair. Normally, each country in this position likes to have achieved something significant during the six-month period - hence the haggling to obtain the Nice agreement in December 2000, for reasons (valid or otherwise) which seem to be glossed over now by France in particular and Germany; its principal purpose was to limit German power by giving France, and entirely coincidentally (my interpretation) the UK and Italy, too, the same number of votes as Germany. It is all the more significant, in my view, that Berlusconi is cautioning that:
Berlusconi warns against bad deal
"If [negotiations] can't be concluded by Sunday morning, it would be better to continue [talking] than to make a bad deal."
Poland is demonstrating that it is not willing to be pushed around by France and Germany. My view is that this is direct pay-back for the insolent remarks of President Chirac earlier this year when he suggested that countries such as Poland and some of the other aspiring EU members should 'shut up' when they took a different attitude from France and Germany toward the developing Iraqi crisis.
As a fervent pro-European, I want closer integration between EU member states, but it needs to be on the basis of equalty. The orginal six member EEC, heavily dominated by [West] Germany and France, can no longer expect to have automatic acquiescence in their wishes. This was already becoming untenable when there were successively nine members, twelve members and now fifteen members and will become completely and outrageously unacceptable when there are twenty-five members. On the other hand, there does need to be some kind of voting formula to prevent the whole institution from becoming completely unwieldy, whilst protecting the rights of the smaller countries. But France, in particular, will have to realise that countries which lived under the yoke of Nazi then Soviet tyranny for several decades cannot be expected to cede their hard-won independence and fledgling democracies to an institution in which they are effectively cut-out of the major decsions. Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) was betrayed by the western European democracies once before and Poland suffered effectively in the same way in practical terms, despite having been the 'straw' which forced these western European democracies to act.