Richard Owen says the cordial atmosphere of the European Council summit produced a lot of talk, but what of the implications? Richard Owen is a senior lecturer of the European Law Unit, University of Glamorgan Law School.
No momentous decisions resulted from the European Council's summit held in Cardiff from 15-16 June. The launch of the single currency and the start of a process of further enlargement, two of the most crucial events of the British Presidency of the European Union, had already been dealt with prior to the summit.
The threat that the summit would be hijacked by a row over the German contribution to the European Union's budget was defused by postponing discussion of the issue. However, the Cardiff Summit could mark a turning point in the de-centralisation of EU decision making and a move towards more informal summits.
One theme of the summit was making the principle of subsidiarity work in practice. This was particularly evident in the field of employment. The European Union intends making greater use of methods which are less intrusive than legislation, such as benchmarking, peer group review and the spreading of best practice. Consequently, all 15 member states submitted Employment Action Plans which were discussed.
It was also clear from the summit that subsidiarity is not simply a question of de-centralising decision making, but also of devolving power upwards where a cross-border dimension to a problem is identified. Areas where further co-operation is regarded as desirable are crime, drugs, environment, foreign policy and the single market.
However, while no indication was given as to whether the concept of subsidiarity includes repatriating legislation to member states, it does embrace a slowdown in the passage of legislation from the EU and improvements in legislative drafting. The European Commission submitted a report entitled Legislate Less to Act Better: The Facts and it was invited to press ahead with its Simpler Legislation for the Internal Market (SLIM) initiative. Work on subsidiarity will be carried forward at an informal summit in Innsbruck in October.
In addition to de-centralising, another way to reconnect the citizens of Europe to the EU's institutions is to promote greater transparency in decision making. Progress has been made on this issue: the commission was praised for its use of the Internet to provide information on single market rights and opportunities.
With regard to the European Internal Market, substantial progress was made towards completing a single market in the gas and telecommunications industries. The European Council re-affirmed its commitment to transposing the remaining overdue single market directives into national laws by the end of this year. Score boards are to be set up to show how effective each member state's integration into the single market is.
In the field of justice and home affairs the summit asked the council to identify the scope for greater mutual recognition of decisions of member states' courts. It also invited closer co-operation between member states and common measures to protect the environment through effective criminal law provision and enforcement.
The summit also welcomed the commission's action plan against racism and said that it looked forward to proposals for further common action. The Treaty of Amsterdam gives the EU new powers for judicial and police co-operation in the field of racism and xenophobia. It would seem likely that these powers will be exercised at an early opportunity.
A deadline of March 1999 was adopted for political agreement on the package of financial, agricultural, and instit utional reform proposals, which are a pre-requisite to enlargement, known as Agenda 2000. While the EU has always responded well to deadlines in the past, the German demand for a rebate on its contribution does not bode well for an early agreement.
The accession of central and eastern European states points in favour of budgetary increases, to help them compete effectively with competition within the single market and for the heavy costs of implementing the existing body of EU legislation.
Hefty increases in pre-accession aid have already been promised, though agreement is difficult because of the number of vested interests involved. The British made clear that their budgetary rebate that took five years to negotiate in the 1980s was “not up for grabs”, while nations such as Spain were quick to see the implications of a German rebate for their own regional aid from the EU.
The German rebate issue was ducked until after the German elections in September, which puts even further pressure on the deadline for Agenda 2000.
EU enlargement to take in Turkey was the subject of intense diplomatic activity behind the scenes at the summit. A rift in relations has developed between the EU and Turkey since its application for membership was put on the back burner. The Cardiff Summit saw a public relations exercise being launched to repair the damage. It was emphasised that the same criteria for membership apply to Turkey as to the central and eastern European states that aspire to membership. The conclusions of the previous Luxembourg Summit were to be re-cast in a more positive light to soothe injured feelings.
While these developments have not changed anything, they were sufficient to raise alarm among the Greek delegation about the possibility of Turkish membership.
There are a number of institutional issues that were unresolved in Amsterdam last year and have become known as the “Amsterdam leftovers”. These relate to the size of the commission, after enlargement and a re-weighting of votes in the council, in favour of the larger member states. Attempts to resolve the leftovers were postponed until after the Treaty of Amsterdam has been ratified by all member states. During the summit, the UK became the third member state to ratify the treaty itself.
With regard to the EU's external relations, the summit failed to reach agreement ona trade treaty with South Africa, despite President Mandela's appearance in Cardiff. The Prime Minister reported that 90 per cent of issues have been agreed, but there are problems remaining on both sides. These relate to canned fruit, oranges and vegetables. A target date for agreement has been set for no later than the autumn of 1998.
The Cardiff Summit failed to produce an agreement of any worth, with the possible exception of the deadline for Agenda 2000. What is striking about the communique is the deferral of decisions on nearly all the issues that surrounded the summit. Chancellor Kohl let it be known that he felt the most helpful aspect of the G8 Summit in May was a meeting that the leaders held in a hotel away from the media circus.
The Innsbruck Summit on subsidiarity will also be conducted on an informal basis. Pressure is building to jettison the jamborees and meet more informally.
An alternative explanation is that with all the heads of government commenting on the friendly atmosphere surrounding the summit, perhaps, this time, they were in no mood to disagree.