Monday, April 19, 2004

So...this EU constitution referendum marlarkey...

Going to look it up on the BBC, and getting side tracked by this. Kevin Spacey being mugged or not as the case may be. Which is a story I completely missed. The main highlights seem to be him asking "Do I look brutally mugged?" on a radio programme, the Mirror implying that people only go into parks in London at night for one thing [which only the Mirror or possibly the Mail, would think of], and his response to that claiming that "Walking your dog in the park is a perfectly normal thing to do," [at 4am? I'm guessing the either dog was still on US time, or he was rather tired and emotional]. So basically the story runs along the lines of "Man foolish, feels it". Which sounds distinctly less interesting.

Anyway, back to EU goodness.

So, we're going to get a referendum on whether or not we want to accept the EU constitution. Woohoo! And what is the EU constitution? Er, they haven't written it yet, because talks last year broke up over various issues, the most dominant of which was whether to include the word God in the preamble (and if so, whether it would be a Catholic God). Nice to know they stick to the important things.

Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, as another problem was to do with weighted voting for countries [in the Council of Ministers]. Spain and Poland would gain most from the current arrangement, but under the new rules, both would lose out. France and Germany (and probably the UK as well, but it's not the done thing to "Boo" ourselves) want a more proportional voting system, which would mean France and Germany get control. It's all very "little countries, know your place". Except they can't make it too proportional, as then when Turkey eventually joins, it'll outgun everyone else, including some of the larger countries combined.

Diagram of Nice Treaty voting weights versus population.

And then of course there's the question of what to do with all the votes. The Nice Treaty defines a motion as being passed if it has gained more than 232 (out of 321) votes, if it is backed by the majority of member states, and these countries represent 62% of the population.

So according to the BBC's stats, the population of the member states is 451.5 million. 62% of which is 280 million. So if Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain agree on something, then they have a combined population of over 280 million. but this is only a 143 votes, so the motion would fail on that count, and as 5 out of 25 countries they only represent 20% of the member states.

Say they convince the next largest states to agree. Adding Poland, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Hungary gets them to 243. That means the representatives of the vast majority of the population are in favour. The majority of votes are in favour. But that's still only 12 out of 25 countries, so the motion is not backed by the majority of member states, and so would fail.

The 13 smallest countries hold 79 out of 321 votes [25%], and have a combined population of 43.5 million out of 451.5 million. Less than 10% of the population can block the actions of the rest of the Union.

I think I can see why people are worried about the enlarged EU entering a paralysed phase.

The suggested amendments remove weighted voting (so Spain and Poland would lose power), and requiring that in order for a motion to be passed the following must be met: it is supported by 50% of the member states, and that those countries represent 60% of the population of the EU. As the combined populations of Germany, France and the UK are 45% of the EU total, then a rejection by these 3 countries would block the motion.

Apparently, even though this artefact existed under the Nice Treaty, it unsettled Spain and Poland since their power was to be reduced. And so the talks stalled and nothing was agreed.

The BBC gives 3 ways of resolving the issue.
- the thresholds required for a vote to be passed - that is, the number of states and the proportion of the population
- the start date for the new system
- the method of switching to it

Germany has reportedly suggested a minimum of 55% for both the population and the number states required to be a majority. Which removes the German, French and British ability to block decisions, and gives more power to the smaller states.

[I wonder what would happen if to the votes if large countries were broken down into smaller units, such as regions, provinces, counties or departements? Well, it would probably end in a melee of small temporary unions as Saxony's grouping desperately battles that of Sussex. Hmm, might get a bit too fiendishly complicated for anything to ever happen. So, much like the present EU then?].

The BBC also diplomatically refers to the use of "carrots", such as European Parliament seats, and regional aid cash. There's nothing quite like bribery and corruption. It's either that or wait for Spain's new government to take a new approach, and then for Poland to realise that standing in the way of the rest of the big guns isn't the best entrance to make into the EU.

The BBC also does a FAQ on the EU constitution.

Hmm, despite all this media mulling of the effect of voting rights, have any of them explained what the Council of Ministers is, who the Ministers are, how they are selected, and what it is exactly that it does. Er...not quite. But hey, it means it matches the national perception of the rest of the EU's governing structure.

Other changes (the ones that will show up in the press).
New EU Foreign Minister - Member of the European Commission, answerable to the Council of Ministers.
Permanent Presidency of the Council of Ministers to replace current 6-month rotation.
More EU Parliamentary power, including the selection of the president of the Commission.
Member suspension, and exit protocols.

Quite what the FM's job will be I'm not sure, as I don't really known what the two roles being combined to form this post are. But I am worried that individual nations will probably end up disagreeing with the FM, which would either damage the country, or damage the FM. I have a hunch it will usually be the latter, which means the EU's FM would be an echo of one of the national FMs. Which there doesn't seem much point in having.

Permanent presidency of the Council of Ministers. I can't say I've noticed the rotating ones. If it's to be permanent then who selects it? Is it on [vaguely] democratic grounds, or at least by a judicious selection group?

Quite frankly, once the CoM voting row gets cleared up, and the roles of the FM and PoCoM clarified, there doesn't seem to be much to it that isn't just administrative tidying (such as the charter of fundamental rights, which presumably will match the various pre-existing national and international charters).

So what is the impact upon us, the residents of the EU countries? Not much, by the sound of it. So why do we get to vote on it? Because then the Tories can tubthump in unison with the Daily Mail, the Lib-Dems can talk about freedom of choice, Blair can claim he hasn't got stuck repeating the same message endlessly.

So what if it's a Yes vote? Nothing much will change, there'll be a couple of new figures who might occasionally scrape into the news. The Tories will have found something else to harangue the Tired Man about, Labour will be too busy with their own internal turmoil to notice, and the Lib-Dems will talk about how it's nice to have a democratic voice.

And a No vote? Well the EU has to wait till it's decided by the UK before they can do anything with it. The Conservatives would be rejoicing frantically, but not know what to do next. Labour would have yet more infighting, and find other matters to distract themselves. And the Lib-Dems will talk about how it's nice to have a democratic voice.

One of the more telling comments on the BBC page
One of the chief factors spurring EU states towards an early resolution of the voting row is that negotiations on the EU's budget for 2007-13 are about to begin.

If disputes over money and voting power are allowed to rage simultaneously it increases the risk of deep divisions emerging.

There's nothing quite like the suggestion that "if you don't agree, the only way is down" to make people decide.

And there's nothing quite like reading news reports on the EU to make one realise how little one understands, and how much of it fits into the category of "do I have to care?".

Anyhoo, I've run out of energy, and so any investigation of what on Earth the Council of Ministers is, will have to wait till some other time.

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