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A new EU president in the offing


Brian Edwards

Emeritus Professor of Healthcare Development
University of Sheffield

HOPE (European ­Hospital and Healthcare ­Federation)

If Member States confirm the recent EU constitution negotiations, there will shortly be a new president on the world stage. This will not be a president elected by the citizens of Europe but one appointed by the European Council, which comprises all heads of state or prime ministers of the member countries. The appointment will be for two and a half years, renewable once. The chosen candidate will then have to be approved by the European Parliament.

This should be better than the current revolving presidency, although the individual will only be able to ­operate through the Council and, as far as one can judge, will have few if any personal powers. He or she could become a new and powerful force for European integration – or just a figurehead, as is the case with many national presidents in European countries. This will be the central argument going on between countries in the run-up to the implementation of the new constitution. The first president is almost certain to be one of Europe’s big political names.

The president will be supported by an EU foreign minister who will coordinate foreign policy and overseas aid with the support of a new diplomatic service. Like the president, this minister will only be able to operate with the consent of the Council and within policies agreed unanimously by Member States. If they disagree, as they did over Iraq, then the minister is powerless. However, a common foreign policy is quite likely to lead to a common defence policy.

To understand why these two appointments will have plenty of influence but little if any real power, other than implementing policy positions negotiated by the European Council, one has to go back to the first principles of the constitution. This is not about creating a European superstate, but about defining more clearly the powers of EU institutions. The subsidiarity principle is still firmly entrenched. The EU can only act in areas where “the objectives of the intended action cannot be sufficiently achieved by Member States or could be better achieved at an EU level”. The EU derives its power from Member States, although under the new constitution it will for the first time have a legal status and “personality” of its own. Once states have agreed that the EU can legislate in a policy area, the latter’s laws will override national laws.

Health systems remain an area of national competence but will no doubt be increasingly subject to EU ­economic legislation. The constitution provides for voting by qualified majority, which is defined as at least 55% of the members of the Council and 65% of the population of Europe. The European Parliament will have powers to co-decide with the Council of Ministers. In practice this means that if the European Parliament does not agree with a piece of legislation it will not pass into law. While this reduces the democratic deficit somewhat, it does nothing to facilitate speedy decision-making. States will retain the right to opt out of decisions in key policy areas, including currency and defence policy. The European Commission is to be slimmed down to one commissioner per country from this year, and then from 25 to 18 commissioners by 2014. In the enlarged EU there are not enough senior jobs to go round without inflating the bureaucracy.

The last time around the new constitution was blocked by negative national referendums, particularly the one by the people of France. This had more to do with public attitudes to European politicians than constitutional principles. Politicians may work hard to avoid referendums this time, although the national leader under ­greatest pressure to have one may well be the UK’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown. That the EU needs a new constitution is beyond doubt, but whether this version will be attuned enough to the mood of the ­people of Europe and their political leaders remains to be seen. Even if it is approved, those who want to see a ­powerful Europe regard it as a weak framework for the future. We may have to wait another decade before states have the confidence to cede more power.

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