06 August 2007

Damage limitation

8.54 am Today Programme

Sarah Montague: Since the 1970s, the heads of government of the different EU countries have held regular informal get-togethers. Over the years, these summits, called the European Council, have become more formalised and now the new treaty would for the first time make the Council one of the Union's formal institutions. Some are saying it's a huge change that will dramatically shift the balance of power.

Gisela Stuart is a Labour MP who was part of the group that drew up the European constitution. Robert Jackson is a former minister. He left the Conservative Party and joined Labour because of the Tories’ opposition to Europe.

Good morning to you both.

Both: Good Morning.

SM: Gisela Stuart. Before we look at the effects of this can you give us just a little bit of an explanation, a definition of what the European Council is?

GS: It's when heads of government meet together and it used to be that they met together to coordinate the interests of the nation state. What that new structure actually does – its almost when you look at any institutional governance. It makes them now part of it, the way like, for example, a federal state like Germany would have a directly elected parliament but there'd be another institution which represents the federal component. We in the UK, we have Parliament and the Lords, the two chambers. What this new structure does, is that body where heads of state meet, they become subordinate to the Union's interests, become part of that working and they will now have a duty to represent the interests of the Union, the interest of the member states. And the third and much more interesting element is that the constitutional treaty will potentially allow for that president of that body also to be the same person as the president of the commission. Therefore it's a consolidation of the way the Union works into a structure that is much more like a government.

SM: Robert Jackson, that sounds like a dramatic shift of power.

RJ: Well, I don't agree with that assessment. I mean, there's a long historical debate going back to the beginnings of the European Union about whether it's going to develop on federalist lines or on intergovernmental lines. And the original federalist concept was that that the Commission would become the government with the Council of Ministers a kind of senate and the European Parliament as the kind of House of Commons of the European structure. But since the 1970s, the development of the European Council – the regular meetings three times a year of the heads of government – has shifted the balance towards intergovernmentalism and this is consolidated in this treaty.

SM: So you're saying that basically they're acting more in the interests of member states than the EU?

RJ: Well they… my view is that the European Union has always been about the cooperation of the member states. They've created a number of common institutions to enable them to pursue common policies in areas where they want to have them, er, but basically the states have always been in the driving seat. The federalist vision which was of a genuinely supranational, commission-driven system has faded, and what we have now in this draft treaty is a final consolidation of the development to an intergovernmental system based on the member states.

SM: Gisela Stuart, when you imagine the heads of government, the heads of all the EU countries, governments, sitting down in a room together, it’s difficult to believe that they suddenly leave their responsibilities for acting for their own countries at the door and suddenly start thinking, acting for the EU?

GS: Robert was right in the Union when you had six or even twelve or possibly even up to 15. He really should look at how the Union’s developed in the last 10-15 years. You now have 27 heads of government sitting round the table and more of them. They will decide by qualified majority. We now even have a duty imposed on national parliaments how they should act. And we have a commission no longer representing every member state. So, by about 2014, when all these changes have come into place, the dynamics of power by far more member states, so for the member states to be the driving force will be much more unlikely because for the 27 to agree will be much more difficult than the original six were. So I think Robert was right in the 90s but he’s failed to understand how the Union's developed in the last 10-15 years.

RJ: Well, I just don't agree with that assessment. Gisela's making a strong point …

SM: 27 is very different from a handful.

RJ: I think 27 means that this consolidates this move towards intergovernmentalism because these 27 different countries all have their different interests. And what happens is a much more complicated process of coalition-building between the different states. And meanwhile, Gisela's point about legal duties to further the interests of the Union. Now, I mean, those are words on paper. In practice, member states will consult their interests and they will work together when they think it's in their interests and otherwise not.

SM: Robert Jackson, Gisela Stuart, thank you.