I think that the Convention has already shown that an enlarged EU of 25 is very different from the Union of 15 because I don’t think that most of the newcomers will be very afraid of expressing their thoughts. I don’t think that they would “use the opportunity to shut up” when France or Germany is saying something that they believe is important and the others have to follow.
The EU is a Compromise of Compromises
Henrik Hololei, chief of Estonia’s Office of European Integration and alternate member of the Convention representing the Estonian government, in an interview to Dace Akule, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
There were three components working in the Convention – national parliamentarians, members of the European parliament and representatives from the governments (the Commission was represented as well). Yet, the last group was also divided into a coalition of small and medium-size countries, and the rest. You were an active participant in the coalition of 16 and defended the principles laid out in the Nice Treaty, being the author of the slogan “give Nice a chance”. Now, what is so good in this treaty that you think is worth defending?
First of all, I think that the Nice [Treaty] is not perfect. It was a compromise of compromises, but I guess everything in the EU is a compromise of compromises. But a lot of sweat and tears were put into getting a result in Nice and some governments had to defend it in their national referenda, they had to say why Nice is better than the existing form. Therefore I think it would be a great mistake to throw something away without really testing it in practise. After all, the main principle of European co-operation and one of the principles which comes from the founding fathers and which has been really guiding the work of the EU throughout its existence - the equality between states - is well guarded in the Nice Treaty.
I think this is extremely important because, if you come from a small country like Estonia or Latvia, you would really like to be part of an EU where the equality of states is respected and where your voice on most important questions is as equal as the voice of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. We have analysed that Nice guarantees this in practise. Now with the new arrangements and the current Constitutional treaty we have our doubts. The principle of equality is a part of it, but we have more and more voices talking about the equality of people – which is true – but which cannot override the principle of the equality of states, the cornerstone of European integration.
Secondly, I also think that [in the field of] moving from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV) there was a big step made already in Nice. Therefore, again, without really testing this [practice], to extend more issues from unanimity to QMV, in some areas including taxation would definitely be premature, at least for us. We’d like to join the EU that was originally created by the Nice Treaty. I think it would also be fair towards many of the new countries.
Now, Estonia and Latvia will be the first ones to test how the new Constitutional Treaty is perceived in the context of enlargement because all the other countries have actually been voting [in their national referenda] on “Nice Europe”. It will not be fair then to say, “Well, actually, you voted on “Nice Europe”, but you’ll get something else.” So, also from that perspective it would be important to preserve Nice. And last, but not least, I think that the decision-making [process] in Nice, which is definitely complicated; is not very transparent, but the designated number of votes in the Council does at least serve the interests of smaller countries better than the new proposed system of 50 per cent of the states and 60% of the people.
Going more into detail, you also defended the rotating presidency that you say has turned into something very strange in this Draft Constitution – we have rotating presidencies in sectorial councils and definitely not in the European Council and the General Affairs Council. And then we also have the issue of Commissioners…
When it comes to the Commission, it is essential that you are represented in it. Otherwise you are completely out of the flow of information, especially when you come from a smaller country, because the big countries have a lot of mechanisms in order to be closer to the information. If a small country is not part of Commission decision-making, that small country is out of the information flow. There is no question about that. So maintaining equality in the Commission is one of the important key principles. I think the text – if we understand it all in the same way – guarantees this principle. But we in the IGC [intergovernmental conference] still have to be sure that we all understand it in the same way.
I have to say that I was a bit shocked when I read the speech of Mr. Giscard D’Estaing [the president of the Convention] in Thessaloniki, where he gave his overview of the work of the Convention, presenting it to the heads of state and government, and where he took the liberty of defining what is meant by equality. His definition of equality does not correspond to the definition of equality that I have grown up with and most of the people I talk to understand it the same way. It was a really strange way to try to interpret the text, which is understood by almost everybody in one way, in another way.
What did he say?
He was basically saying – equality, yes, but you have to take into account that some countries are bigger and some are smaller, some have a more important role and others – a less important role; yes, equality in general, but not that everybody gets the same rights. That’s in broad terms, and that was a bit dangerous, I would say. So we have to be sure in the IGC to guarantee that the way the Commission is currently written in the Constitutional Treaty will remain the same. That would mean that, yes, we could agree that there is a smaller Commission, a smaller number of Commissioners, who have the right to vote because – let’s be honest – the current Commission has voted 5 or 6 times, the Santer [former president of the Commission Jacques Santer] Commission voted 7 or 8 times during its existence. But what is not acceptable is that those Commissioners who are without a vote, will be a) without a portfolio, and b) will not be part of the decision-making [process]. I mean, they must be in the same room where the decisions are made! When you have a vote – fine, those who have the right to vote, can vote, but everybody must be in the same room. Otherwise, this is a completely different kind of EU. I don’t think that we should accept it and I am very glad that very many countries have stood up for the same thing and want to have clarification on that. So, if the Estonian Commissioner or the Latvian Commissioner rotates the same way as the French Commissioner, one commissioner has the right to vote, the other does not. That’s fine by me as long as they stay in the same room and they have access to the same information. Then we have preserved the principle of equality.
When it comes to the rotation of the council, then I agree - I am also a bit puzzled about that. We have given up the principle of the rotating presidency on the higher level, however we’ve been able to maintain the principle of rotation in the sectorial councils with the exception of the GAC [General Affairs Council]. Again, the question is – what do we mean by that? Equal rotation – what is that? Do we understand it the same way? In the IGC, one must clarify these things and they should be very clear. Is that opening up a door for team-presidency [where the presidency is held by several countries]? I think that’s possible. I don’t really see any threats there. If a good team is composed, which is balanced, including big and small countries, north and south – then why not have a team-presidency in sectorial councils? But it must be ensured through the work of the IGC.
However, I am more concerned about the idea of creating a Legislative Council, which to my mind is definitely a step backwards. I know that federalists are very fond of that, but I don’t see very many countries supporting it. I remember that when we gathered signatures even countries like Germany, Spain and the UK were signing up to abolish this, but that was the baby of vice-president [of the Convention] Amato and it would not be thrown away, by Giscard at least. So I hope the IGC will be clever and courageous enough to scrap the Legislative Council because that would mean taking away the decision-making powers of the sectorial councils. I don’t think that that’s a good idea. I think that the sectorial councils are the best ones to decide upon specific issues and how that relates to the other areas is a matter of internal co-ordination. So I think that when we look at the internal co-ordination of different member states, we really see that countries like Finland and the United Kingdom are operating extremely well. If that’s the problem of those countries who are not operating well, I think they should rather brush up their internal co-operation between ministries rather than try to change some of the essentials of the EU.
So I really think that the spirit that was present in our group of governments regarding this issue will be maintained in the IGC.
But if you compare the first requests in the spring from the small and medium-size countries to what we see now in this Draft Constitution, I would not say that it’s in line with these requests. So what does that mean – that they did not listen to you?
I think that was a typical way of how the EU works. You always have to compromise; it’s a compromise of compromises because if we compare the text proposed by France and Germany in December of last year about how the Union should be organised, then the current text that we have is also very far away from that. So we all had to come together at some point and we also knew when we were drafting our position papers that we would never achieve what we have, but that we should be ambitious in our goals and try to see where we can really compromise. It was not easy because we had a lot of countries there [in the group of small and medium-size countries] – 16 signatures in the beginning and later on a few more signatures, so almost 20 countries had the same position. But when the question was where to give up, then the countries had a bit of a different angle on that. But I think that we were able to strike a compromise.
I would say that without the co-operation of small and medium-size countries, which has been a unique practise, we would not have achieved a bit of this.
I think that the Convention has already shown that an enlarged EU of 25 is very different from the Union of 15, also in terms of the power lines that do exist in the EU today. There is much less prejudice. There is more of a kind of a sense of historical compromise that you have in the EU-15 today than you would have in the EU-25. I don’t think that most of the newcomers will be very afraid of expressing their thoughts. I don’t think that they would “use the opportunity to shut up” when France or Germany says something that they believe is important and that the others have to follow. I think that they will defend quite a lot of their interests and we also saw that in the Convention. There has never been a co-operation like that between small and medium-size countries and it would never have been without the new member states because nine out of 10 are small or medium-size countries. They defend their rights and they more than double the number of small and medium-size countries in the current EU. So, of course, it means that their relative weight of power is increasing much more than otherwise. That, of course, affects why the big countries would like to have a Constitutional treaty which legally guarantees them certain rights overriding the rights of some of the other countries, or at least tries to make their position as strong as possible, ‘cause they know that with a normal decision-making procedure they will lose power relatively, as long as the small and medium-size countries stay together.
However, one also has to admit one thing – small and medium-size countries versus big countries only applies when you have an issue about institutions or power in general. There is not a single issue in the EU where the division falls between big and small, there are always other dimensions that determine the way the division goes. But obviously, when you talk about power, when you talk about institutions, representation and equality, there is no doubt that the small and medium-size countries have a certain interest in keeping the balance of the EU from leaning too much towards the big ones. Today, it still leans towards the small and medium-size ones, but this has always been the heart of European co-operation. I mean, when the EU was formed, when the Treaty of Rome was made, Luxembourg and Germany enjoyed the same kind of power of veto in most key areas. This has been an important part of the progress of Europe and also, I think, the European identity. In the EU of 25, it can’t be exactly the same, but we should strive for that and I think that this is what the small and medium-size countries are also trying to do. So I would say that the result of the Convention was a success, it also showed that those countries can work together. The Nice result could have been better if the line the small and medium-sized countries followed had been the same until the end, but it wasn’t. Now, this time we stayed together until the end, and I think this was a very historical achievement.
Now, in short, what are the main negative and positive elements of the Draft Constitution that you would say make it easier or harder for you to ‘sell’ this Constitution to the Estonian public?
Well, I think that selling any constitutional treaty is a challenge. But I think that there are a lot of positive elements. I would definitely mention the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental rights as part of the Constitutional Treaty of the EU, which increases the legal defence of the citizens of Europe a lot. You can be assured that wherever you go within the territory of the European Union you have a right guaranteed by law to equal treatment as European citizens. I think that is very important for us. I mean, we have always felt that [when we go] somewhere in Europe we really are not treated the same way as members of the EU or members of that particular country are. Now we have a legal right to that and nobody can really question this.
Secondly, I think that - for the sake of clarity – the current Constitutional treaty is much more simple and clear, and readable as a text for a human being, not for a legal human being, than it was before. Having different treaties was very, very complicated. Now it’s simple. If you take Part I and Part II, everybody can read that and I think that for a Constitution this is important. The simplification, a clearer text, the consolidation of the treaties, is really making the European Union what it is.
When it comes to the negative aspects, I’m very strongly against the way enhanced co-operation is currently being seen - enhanced co-operation in defence. I think this is unthinkable the way it is currently presented. If eight countries in the EU can have a right, a legal right, to form a co-operation, then what does this mean in practise? It means that the EU can have three different formations in defence because there are 25 countries. So there could be three formations of eight, each with its own view and development of defence policy. I think this is completely unacceptable. I mean, if we want to have enhanced co-operation, which is an important part of it, then it should at least be 50% [of the countries] plus one. I know why the threshold has been kept so low – so that some countries can move forward. But through that you really have to think that maybe other countries will want to move forward as well. Can you imagine a European Union so “united in diversity” than there would be a pro-NATO and an anti-NATO enhanced co-operation in defence, which is legally possible? I think that this would complicate things a lot.
Secondly, I have not been convinced of the virtues of the permanent presidency of the European Council. I can understand some of the reasons behind it, but I’m still very, very hesitant and would like to really see more proof about that. I am afraid that, this being a part of the compromise, it will not be opened anymore in the IGC, but I hope that in practise it really does give some added value, though it would be difficult now for me to see what that added value could be.
And finally, you already mentioned that the IGC will now look into the details of this Draft Constitution, and nobody really knows how much it will change. Yet, won’t you be rather happy to see them change something that would maybe be more close to the line of the small countries and Estonia and Latvia?
I hope so, but I am also a bit doubtful about it. I have been talking to many different member states now and there seem to be very different views. On the one hand, some are saying that the IGC should do nothing more than basically accept what is there on paper because it’s so good; that it should say that this is the Constitutional treaty and then start its ratification. On the other hand, some say, “Actually, there is quite a lot to do and this is only a good basis for a starting point to work forward, and many, many things have to be changed.” I am a bit afraid that when you open up certain things that are important to you some of the important things where compromise has already been achieved might be opened up again. This is something that I am not convinced will work for the best because it can end up as a big mess.
We also have to know that, if we achieve something fundamentally important that some of the big countries oppose, then we also have to be prepared to give up something else, something important, because they will also then demand their share of the compromise. So it will be important to identify issues where the dividing line does not run between big and small, but rather where the dividing line includes both. For example, the issue about the Legislative Council, where there was a clear interest from both sides [big and small countries] to change the proposal. I think this is where the IGC can easily find a consensus and should strive for that. But I don’t think that opening up fundamental issues that have been part of the dispute and compromise is really possible.
I also oppose those who say that, if you want to change it in your direction, then, well, this is not the EU we want and we will have another EU of our own. There have been some countries, old member states, pointing in this direction, but I think that this is merely part of their negotiation tactics and they don’t really mean it.
So I think that we should stick together, we should exchange our information, but also be realistic. We should not go into a situation where we would badly jeopardise the compromise achieved, but we should rather concentrate on improving the existing text by consensus in those areas where the Convention didn’t do its work well. The Convention didn’t do its work well in the institutions and in the third part because we didn’t use the Convention method really in order to achieve it. So I think that these could be the areas where we’ll have discussions, where we’ll try to find compromises and make the Treaty better so that also the Estonians and Latvians can really see the benefits of that and can later on easily ratify it according to their internal procedures.