Time to stop dealing behind closed doors at the IGC

Uncertainty about the agenda for the Intergovernmental Conference may decrease public support for the EU, says Rose D'Sa

Secrecy is a common, perhaps indispensable, phenomenon of inter-governmental negotiations. Yet the lack of a clear, published agenda for the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in Turin is particularly odd when viewed in the context of one of its objectives – to increase public support for the European Union in its member states and make it more relevant to its citizens.

For the average person, the complexity of having three distinct communities, one on coal and steel, the other on atomic energy and the third apparently without specific qualification, is puzzling enough.

Add to this a union which has no power to conclude an international treaty or agreement but is competent to deal with foreign policy as well as co-operation in the fields of justice and home affairs, and it is little wonder that the public is confused.

The position for lawyers in Europe is not comforting either. The EC Treaty alone consists of 248 articles and some 17 protocols.

Some aspects of the Turin agenda are, of course, known. It was agreed at Maastricht in 1992 that the IGC would be convened to review the treaties establishing the EU and the EC and adapt them to present and future needs.

Certain topics were identified, including the possibility of increasing certain legislative powers of the European Parliament, as well as possible revision of the provisions of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) relating to security and defence.

Such weighty matters are interspersed with arguably lesser goals, including questions relating to budgetary discipline and procedure as well as an examination of some of the numerous declarations attached to the TEU, such as those on civil protection, energy and tourism. So far not wildly exciting, even for lawyers.

Perhaps an approach more in tune with the citizens of Europe is called for. What is also needed at the IGC is the means of once more inspiring the passionate commitment to peace in Europe, underpinned by substantial economic and social advancement, which motivated the founding fathers of the community in 1957. After all, the horrors of the war in the former Yugoslavia are a reminder of the dangers of failure.

The success of the EU over the past 40 years is shown by the many nations, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe, which are now applying to become part of this “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

The Reflection Group, established by the European Council in Corfu in June 1995, identified the preparation of the EU for enlargement as one of the main objectives of the IGC.

But quite apart from the political and economic issues which have to be considered when deciding whether prospective members should be allowed to join, complex institutional issues are also raised by a possible increase in member states.

The necessary amendments to the voting majority which would be required under legislative procedures in the council and European Parliament, and even in the composition of judges in the European Court and Court of First Instance, offer considerable scope for governments to disagree.

In fact, any member state wishing to extend the duration of the IGC until it runs out of momentum, or at least until it coincided with a less turbulent phase in the country in question's domestic fortunes, would widen the agenda to include as many potentially divisive matters as possible.

This would serve to divert time and energy from the important issues waiting to be addressed, such as the necessary reforms to make enlargement possible.

The numerous declarations annexed to the TEU include one on the 'Rights of Access to Information'. It acknowledges that transparency of the decision-making process strengthens the democratic nature of the institutions and the public's confidence in the administration. Surely this should extend to the IGC itself?

The classic argument in favour of secrecy is that it protects a government's negotiating position. However, if amendments are to be made to the Maastricht Treaty, they will have to be ratified by national parliaments and the public will be engaged in the debate.

Far better to encourage that debate early on and avoid a repeat of the pitfalls which occurred after Maastricht.

The UK Government's recent decision to outline its position in a White Paper is therefore to be welcomed.

Will the other 14 governments of the EU do the same, or will they bring only secret agendas to the IGC and deal behind doors closed to the European public?