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Predicting the future role of the Treaty is a hazardous business. The Single Act, adopted in a climate of indifference, proved a powerful tool for federalisation. The Maastricht Treaty, on the other hand, was ratified with the greatest of difficulty but probably did not radically transform existing practice, with the exception of the single currency, yet still managed to divide opinion into pro- and anti-Maastricht camps and coin a whole new vocabulary to go with it.
The issues and content of the Amsterdam Treaty were partly overshadowed at the Amsterdam Summit by the simultaneous debate on the Stability Pact to accompany EMU. It was greeted with scepticism for failing to reach agreement on some of the aspects exposed to the most intense media coverage because they supposedly pitted the large states against the smaller ones.
The ratification stage will begin this autumn, and there is a real danger that the national debates will be complicated by the many issues where Europe is playing for high stakes: the single currency, enlargement, EU finances.
The Amsterdam Treaty is by no means the last word on European integration. Like its predecessors it marks a further stage in the process. However one views it, it probably represents the most that the Member States were prepared to agree among themselves at a given moment. And like any treaty, everything will depend on what is made of it in practice.
It does, however, have some potential strengths (the role of the European Parliament; the change in the status of justice and home affairs; perhaps a new landmark in the creation of a European foreign policy; the chapter on employment) and several likely weaknesses (institutional questions, particularly the retention of the unanimity requirement for too many decisions). These will certainly give rise to further conferences, some of which have already been scheduled.
Commentators who were hoping for some great institutional overhaul before enlargement have been disappointed and have consequently written Amsterdam off as a fiasco or farce. But it has to be said that after two years of reflection the great institutional debate has proved to be curiously vacuous and misguided.
If the debate boils down to the measures proposed but not agreed in Amsterdam, these hardly amounted to the major reform for which such rash claims were sometimes made:
-the reweighting of votes in the Council, which was justified to some extent to offset the impact of enlargement, was couched in political terms and thus became a political problem. But if we look more closely at the issue and add up the numbers involved, a reweighting of the majority according to any of the formulas envisaged in Amsterdam would have produced no change whatever in any of the decisions adopted by the Council over the past three years;
-the question of the number of Commissioners is more fundamental, and the case for slimming down the Commission is a strong one. But if it is simply a matter of whether there should be 20 or 26 Commissioners it is hard to see this as the tremendous reform that would transform the workings of the Union.
Two simple remarks suggest cause for both humility and perseverance:
-firstly, all of the delegations asserted their commitment to maintaining the institutional balance (yet this balance is constantly shifting, as exemplified by the increased role of the European Parliament); this commitment means that everyone wants to build on the foundations of the achievements of forty years of European integration - and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There will be no tabula rasa on which radically new institutional formulas will be rebuilt;
-secondly, there is no magic formula that can confound the mathematics: the organisation will inevitably be more difficult for a group of 21, 26 or 30 than one of 6 or even 15. Enlargement has certain inherent consequences.
What this amounts to is that the reforms to be undertaken in response to the demands of enlargement cannot be achieved by new constitutional formulas so much as by a less headline-grabbing series of changes to the way our institutions operate. Most of these reforms are a question of fine-tuning, and many rightfully belong in the internal rules of procedure rather than in the Treaty itself.
The Commission, for example, is currently reexamining the way its departments operate and experimenting with working methods involving groups of Commissioners. The most urgent measures should probably relate to the Council, as the institution most affected by the increase in its membership. Problems with conducting meetings and discussions and administering implementing measures all increase exponentially as the number of members grows. Written procedures need to be invented, authority has to be delegated more systematically, and a rationalisation of the General Affairs Council is essential. None of these points requires an amendment to the Treaty. The same cannot be said of a reweighting of votes in the Council, but freed of the political baggage with which it has been encumbered it can join the ranks of those adjustments that should not be insurmountable.
Apart from these much needed operational improvements, does this mean there is no such thing as a single, important, easily identifiable institutional reform which would enable us to look ahead to enlargement without apprehension?
Not exactly. In fact we have known for some time that what is required is an end to unanimous decision-making and the general use of qualified majority voting. It is on this score that the Treaty still has far to go: in the short term for justice and home affairs, progressively for foreign policy decisions, and ultimately, when everyone is mentally ready for it, for amending the Treaty itself.
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