A Nice Mess in Nice

LONDON: A hundred years ago, the humorous English magazine Punch carried a cartoon which depicted a young and nervous curate eating breakfast with his bishop. He was eating a boiled egg, and clearly not enjoying it. The bishop enquired: “I say - is your egg all right?” And the curate replies: “My Lord, it is excellent in parts.”

The cartoon caught the English fancy, and created a catch-phrase still in use today, although it is usually misunderstood and misused. Someone may say: “It’s a bit of a curate’s egg”, when he means that something is a mixture of good and bad. But of course the point of the original joke was that the curate was just being polite: an egg is either good or bad, and his was bad.

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This week’s European Summit at Nice (December 7-9) looks like being a curate’s egg. The question is, will it be bad all through and a failure? Or will it be “excellent in parts”? The probable answer is: both. It will almost certainly fail to achieve its immediate objectives; but it may open the door to serious progress afterwards.

The ostensible purpose of the summit is to make those changes in the European Union’s decision-making machinery that would enable it to cope with the admission of at least 12 new members, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe. Everyone knows that these changes ought to be radical, even semi-federal. At the very least, the coming enlargement will call for much more majority voting in the Council of Ministers, if the Union is not be paralyzed by 27 member states and 27 national vetoes.

But most member states are unwilling to contemplate anything that far-reaching. The host French, who currently hold the EU Presidency, have listed 50 policy areas where majority voting might be possible. Every country, however, has special sensitivities: the Germans are unwilling to be outvoted on immigration; the French are unwilling to be outvoted on trade in services; the British are unwilling to be outvoted on taxation. The cumulative result of all these national objections, is that the Nice summit is likely to see only a modest increase in the potential for majority voting, much smaller than enlargement requires.

A similar reluctance will dominate the rest of the immediate institutional agenda. In principle, the Commission ought to be slimmed down after enlargement, with fewer Commissioners than member states. Equally, big member states ought to have more votes in the Council of Ministers, to reflect their greater populations. Small member states do not like either proposition, because they would lose Commissioners and votes. On both issues, expect a serious tug-of-war, and any decisions are likely to be half-hearted, or in practice postponed.

Yet, the 15 member states may compensate for their collective failure of nerve by opening up easier options for flexible or multi-speed integration. This might be a way round the majority voting dilemma, since it would allow groups of member states to cooperate together in particular areas, without waiting for the unanimous agreement of all partners. Whether this would really be a desirable procedure is hotly debated; but the fact is that multi-speed integration already exists in the sense that Britain and Denmark are not now, and may never be, members of the euro.

If these scraps were to be the sum total of the Nice summit, it will prove unsatisfactory, even a failure. But the real significance of the meeting may turn out to be, not the limited decisions which the heads of government are able and willing to take this time round, but the opening up, virtually for the first time, of serious discussion about the future direction of the European Union.

One thing that will happen at Nice will be the formal adoption of a Charter of Fundamental Rights. In its present form, this document recapitulates all kinds of rights which EU citizens already enjoy under existing laws; it is not intended to confer any new rights, and it cannot be enforced in the European Court of Justice. In other words, it is a public relations conjuring trick, designed to make the EU seem more attractive, without actually conferring any real benefits.

Even as a conjuring trick, the Charter could be influential. For example, Article 2 reads: “Everyone has the right to life. No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.” It seems evident that this principle will be effectively binding on all member states, and all candidates for membership. The question at Nice will be whether the Charter should be incorporated into the EU Treaties, and thus given the force of law.

Another similar question at Nice will be whether the time has come to simplify the EU Treaties, which are now a confusing jumble of general principles and difficult detail. Simplification might be intended, at the start, as another conjuring trick: to make the Treaties more comprehensible to voters without changing anything in law. But it could also become the first, essential step on the road to the drafting of a European constitution.