The Treaty of Nice was adopted by the EU Heads of State or Government on 11 December, 2000. The most important stipulations of the Treaty of Nice concern the adjustment of the EU institutions to an enlarged Union of 25 and later 27 or 28 members. The Treaty of Nice defines how the main EU institutions will function when the process of enlargement is completed.
The Treaty of Nice introduces a number of important changes concerning the following key aspects of the EU’s operation:
At present, the European Commission has 20 Commissioners. On the basis of regulations currently in force, in an enlarged EU with 27 Member States the Commission would have 33 Commissioners.
The Treaty of Nice stipulates that the Commission is to be composed of one person from each Member State, and that the EU candidate countries will be entitled to have one Member of the Commission when they effectively join the EU. As of 1 January 2005, Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain will each give up their second Commissioner. An enlarged EU with 27 Member States means the Commission will have a maximum number of 27 Commissioners.
When 27 countries are members of the EU, a new set-up will be introduced to reduce the maximum number of Commissioners, which means in effect that each EU Member State will take its turn not to be represented in the Commission. The underlying philosophy being that all countries - large and small - are equal.
The Treaty of Nice also provides the President of the European Commission with a set of instruments to help the Commission work more efficiently, particularly in view of the enlargement. For instance, one such instrument pertains to the right of the President of the Commission to decide the way in which the Commission is organised and tasks are distributed among its Members.
The European Council
The fact that enlargement will overturn the current balance between large and small Member States has necessitated adjustment with regard to the distribution of votes.
The weighted votes of Member States in the Council are the basis for determining the size of a qualified majority. At present, the threshold for the qualified majority is set at 62 votes or 71% of the total 87 votes in the Council. In an EU with 27 Member States, this threshold will be at least 225 votes (approximately 74%) of a total 345 votes.
The voting rules in the Council will also be changed under the Treaty of Nice, given that EU legislation will no longer require merely a qualified majority. In future, a majority of the EU Member States must support a resolution. The Member States in favour of a resolution must represent at least 62% of the total EU population. This decision underlines that the EU is not only a Union of countries but also of populations.
The European Parliament
The Treaty of Nice also amends the structure of the European Parliament. Looking ahead to the enlargement of the Union, the Treaty limits the number of MEPs to a maximum of 732, allocating seats among Member States and candidate countries with effect from the next elections. Naturally, the candidate countries will not be represented in the European Parliament until they become members of the Union. This entails a reduction in the number of MEPs for some Member States e.g. the UK, France and Italy which currently have 87 MEPs will have 72 under the amendments.
The more Member States, the more difficult it will be to resolve on issues and for this reason voting rules will in some instances be modified. The result is that a majority of Member States will now have a greater chance of securing the adoption of new EU legislation without all Member States having to agree.
Under the Treaty of Nice, voting will be possible on the following:
- Regulations in support of less-favoured countries and regions in Europe, e.g. regulations on how funds are applied in Member States, environmental requirements, etc.
- Regulations on the control of EU funds in general, e.g. establishing guidelines for the EU budget and the presentation of accounts.
- Certain aspects of the EU’s common commercial policy, e.g. trade in services, patents, trademarks, intellectual property, copyright, etc. However, the agreement of all Member States will continue to be required in matters pertaining to shipping.
- Certain appointments, e.g. the President of the European Commission.
In 1997 the Treaty of Amsterdam introduced the concept of ‘enhanced cooperation’, basically enabling a majority of willing member states to integrate further, under the aegis of the union, in specific areas without waiting for reluctant countries. Such cooperation was subject to strict rules and not allowed within the common foreign and security policy. Any attempt at such cooperation could be vetoed by another Member State and had to involve at least half the EU members. For these reasons it never happened in practice.
The Treaty of Nice now makes it easier to establish enhanced cooperation by allowing a minimum of eight Member States to cooperate in all areas except military and defence. It also abolishes the veto option. Enhanced cooperation is, however, still subject to some prerequisites. For instance, a minimum of eight member states is required, the cooperation must be open to all Member States that wish to participate and attempts must first be made to bring all Member States on board. In addition, many areas will need European Parliament approval.
Under the Treaty on European Union , the European Council can declare the existence of a serious and persistent breach of fundamental rights. If this occurs, the Council may suspend some of the rights of the country concerned.
The Treaty of Nice has supplemented this procedure with a preventive instrument. Upon a proposal of one-third of the Member States, the Parliament or the Commission, the Council, acting by a four-fifths majority of its members and with the assent of the European Parliament, can declare that a clear danger exists of a Member State committing a serious breach of fundamental rights and subsequently make appropriate recommendations to that Member State.
Common Foreign and Security Policy
The Nice Treaty amends certain provisions on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
Firstly, provisions defining relations between the Western European Union (WEU) and the EU have been removed from the Treaty on European Union, since the defence aspects of the CFSP are to be framed by the EU itself.
Secondly, the Political and Security Committee (‘PSC’, a new designation of the political committee in the Treaty) may be authorised by the Council to take the appropriate decisions in order to ensure the political control and strategic leadership of the crisis management operation. The Committee is permanently established in Brussels and consists of one representative from each EU Member State.