The Council of the European Union after European Union enlargement
The article analyses the functioning of the Council of the European Union after the latest enlargement. It looks both at the Estonian domestic shaping of positions and the working of the institution at the EU level.
Estonia has managed to adopt a rather well-functioning system of shaping its positions for the Council since the accession to the EU. The formal requirements are that if a draft proposal of the European Commission makes it necessary to adopt, amend or repeal an Estonian law or to pass a regulation of the Government, then the position on that proposal has to be approved by the Government. The same applies to proposals which would have a significant social or economic impact on Estonia. On all those positions (except those which only need a Government regulation) the Government consults with the Riigikogu.
However, as the volume of EU legislation and related time pressure are considerable, the ministries need to be aware of new proposals already in the drafting phase in the Commission in order to be able to shape their own positions within five weeks of publication of the draft. We will also need to prioritise better in order to have sufficient resources to deal with the proposals that are truly important. If we can have good, thoroughly analyzed positions based on consultations with relevant interest groups, then we also stand a fair chance of influencing the decisions in Brussels.
The last enlargement of the EU two years ago has not significantly changed the decision-making in the Council. Although there are 27 member states (and future members) around the table and personal contacts are more difficult to establish, the pattern remains the same. Even though most decisions are made by qualified majority (QMV), the consensual culture still prevails and an attempt is made to have all countries on board if possible. As earlier, there are no permanent coalitions, but they are based on concrete issues.
Thus we can say that despite the claims to the contrary, there is no institutional crisis in the EU. The institutional balance crafted by the Nice Treaty makes it possible for the EU-25 or EU-27 to reach the necessary decisions as shown by the major agreements reached within the last two years on the financial perspective or the chemicals package REACH, also an agreement seems imminent on the services directive.
Even though the EU is working well on the basis of the Nice Treaty, we have agreed certain institutional changes in the draft Constitutional Treaty, which still remains in limbo after the Estonian ratification on 9 May. Those changes are generally positive, but they would not alter the institutional balance, rather they would make the decision-making smoother. The Constitutional Treaty would make the decision-making in the Council simpler, more transparent and more efficient (by making the QMV a near-universal rule, opening the sessions of the Council more to the public, linking up the subsequent presidencies in a team presidency, electing a president for the European Council and separating the general affairs and external relations branches of the present General Affairs and External Relations Council).
The article concludes that the Council is functioning as well as ever after the enlargement, although a certain face-lift based on the Constitutional Treaty could be useful. However, if there is a crisis in the EU, then this not institutional but rather emanates from the perceived lack of legitimacy and the lack of courage to take bold decisions – and here the Constitutional Treaty will not help much.