The debate on proposals for a new Constitution for the EU, now entering its final stage in the so-called "European Convention," is turning into a power struggle between member states over rival visions of the future of the Union. In the past, the main axis of debate was usually been between federalists, who want a stronger EU, and inter-governmentalists, who want to preserve the member states' national autonomy. This remains true today. But the debate is now being distorted by a secondary struggle between the EU's large and small countries, with results that are sometimes paradoxical.
The immediate issue is management of the EU Council of Ministers. At present, the council meets under the presidency of an individual member state for a period of six months, at the end of which the presidency rotates to another member state.
France and Germany argue that this rotational system is dysfunctional, partly because of discontinuity, and have proposed that the council should appoint a full-time permanent president for a period of five years. Their proposal was categorically rejected in a joint submission by 16 existing or future member states, all of them small countries, who insisted that the principle of rotation must be retained, as a symbol of the equality of all member states.
The stakes on this issue have now been raised two notches higher. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the president of the convention, has formally endorsed the Franco-German proposal. The same day, the European Commission hit back with a strong criticism of the proposal, saying that it would create rival bureaucracies and a sense of confusion.
The deep reason for this particular argument is the EU's looming enlargement, which will take the membership from 15 to 25 countries in May next year. When the European enterprise started, there were three small and three large countries; but almost all the new members are small countries. So after enlargement there will be six large and 19 small member states.
This re-balancing between the large and small member states is shifting some old assumptions in a number of paradoxical ways. In the past, small member states used to gravitate towards federalist positions, because they calculated that they needed strong central institutions to contain the power of the large member states (especially France).
Today, by insisting on presidential rotation and the equality of member states, whatever their size, the small countries are effectively adopting an inter-governmentalist position, because they fear that the real purpose of the Franco-German proposal is to ensure that the council will remain under the leadership of a big member. There is, in fact, little doubt that is what France and Germany (and Britain) intend.
So here is the second paradox: both large and small EU countries imagine that they can optimize their relative leverage by adopting inter-governmentalist positions. They cannot both be right.
It is far too soon to draw hard and fast conclusions. The "convention," though influential, is just a debating group; the real negotiations between governments will come later this year. We can have no idea in advance how a 25-member EU will really operate; practical realities will exert their influence on political chemistry.
It is conceivable that the swarm of small new member states may revert to the traditional and logical predisposition towards federalism. But my personal hunch is that the Franco-German proposal is based on a fundamental error of judgment. To understand why, consider that their proposal for a permanent Council president was paired with a proposal that the commission president -- currently nominated by the Council of Ministers -- should in future be elected by the European Parliament, and subsequently be endorsed by a majority vote of the Council of Ministers. If adopted, this innovation would confer much greater political legitimacy on the commission president, as well as greater independence from the Council of Ministers (ie, the member states).