Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Council Reform: Solana Proposals


  1.  This note sets out the UK view on the options put forward by Solana in his Barcelona paper on reforming the Council for enlargement. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have already set out broad objectives in this area (joint letter with Chancellor Schröder, Hague Speech).


  2.  The Solana paper covers:

    (a)  ideas which do not require Treaty change: (reform of European Council business, reform of the General Affairs Council, transparency). The UK hopes that agreement can be reached at Seville in these areas and implemented as soon as possible;

    (b)  those which require Treaty change.

  This paper concentrates on the options which do not require Treaty change.


The European Council

  Solana options:

    —  European Council to focus on major strategic decisions.

    —  Abolition of reports, conclusions, other ``parasitic'' procedures.

    —  Formalisation of rhythm of four meetings per year and integration into normal pattern of EU activity.

    —  Use of standard meeting procedures (eg agendas).

    —  Conclusions replaced by a brief summary of decisions and agreed strategic guidelines.

    —  Radical reduction of size of delegations; no ancillary activities.

    —  More structured preparation (including reduction in council formations).

  3.  The Solana ideas generally fit well with the UK idea of a European Council that returns to its original strategic purpose, within an overall framework based on the existing institutional balance.

  4.  The key elements of the strategic role that the UK envisages are: an annual discussion to set a rolling agenda for the EU for the coming year and beyond; subsequent meetings to assess progress against this agenda and to give guidance/take decisions on the most difficult issues it throws up; and—as part of this process—to have regular single-theme meetings on the model of Lisbon and Tampere.

  5.  This would require major reform of the way the European Council does its business, to put the time to better use. At present, the typical first day of a European Council is not an optimal use of time: lengthy table rounds; occasional set piece meetings with third parties; too much ceremony.

  6.  Nor is the conclusions drafting itself the best use of the European Council's time. Conclusions can act as a means of cutting through the trickiest issues on the EU agenda, and as guidance for future Council activity. But too often they focus on secondary detail at the expense of the big strategic picture. Heads of Government have to spend far too much time on detailed drafting. The final product often bears little relation to the discussions, and is too long to make the right presentation impact. It is the opposite of a clear and simple picture of the EU's strategic objectives.

  7.  On this basis, the UK believes that a more strategic European Council might function in the following way:

    (a)  Current conclusions to be replaced by a much clearer and shorter (10 pages maximum) statement identifying progress made since the last European Council, issuing guidance on the key unresolved issues and, annually, setting out strategic priorities for the year ahead;

    (b)  Such a statement to be prepared in advance (see below) with the bulk pre-agreed. Three of four big issues to be left to the European Council with suggested options on these;

    (c)  Agendas to list three or four issues;

    (d)  Meetings to last one day only, starting, as now, with the meeting with the EP President. But then: no extraneous activity, no table rounds, shorter lunches, discussion limited to the three or four issues and to continue until the statement is agreed.

    (e)  Delegations to be far smaller—say an upper limit of 20.

  8.  All of which is not to say that the European Council should abandon its discussions on the main international issues (the MEPP etc) or its negotiating role. It will still have to do the final deals on the biggest negotiations: future financing in 2006, for example. But these can be better prepared, to avoid the Nice experience: see below.

General Affairs Council (GAC)

  Solana options:

    —  A new Council of Deputy Prime Ministers.

    —  A new Council of Europe Ministers.

    —  Splitting the GAC into two formations—one dealing with external relations, the other with horizontal questions.

  9.  The Solana paper correctly notes that the GAC does not satisfactorily fulfil its horizontal function. This should encompass: preparing European Councils; leading the big horizontal negotiations (eg IGCs, enlargement); and co-ordinating the work of sectoral Councils.

  10.  There are serious practical difficulties with Solana's first two options. Many Member States do not have a Deputy Prime Minister. Of those that do, the domestic role of the post would not always fit well with an overarching EU role. The Europe Ministers' Council option would also run into problems. First, as with Deputy Prime Ministers, several other Member States do not have such a post. Second, they may not have the influence with big domestic Ministries necessary to make the compromises needed in order to undertake the big horizontal negotiations effectively.

  11.  This leaves the third option of splitting the GAC into two formations: one dealing with external relations (to be called either a Foreign Affairs Council or the GAC(F)); and one dealing with horizontal issues (GAC(H)?). The idea is attractive—provided that there was a genuine separation between the two Councils. But it would not necessarily involve different Ministers, or Ministries. It would be a matter for Member States to decide whether their Foreign Ministers/MFAs would be the lead Ministers/Ministries in both GAC formations. A separate GAC(H), with a different schedule of meetings, would give those attending it the time and space properly to focus and negotiate on these cross-cutting issues.

  12.  But the answer is not simply one of creating a new Council, or for Member States to decide who sits on it. It is as much about its tasks and working methods. So whichever, if any, of these options emerges, it needs to be accompanied by some reforms in the way the Council addresses the three main horizontal tasks (preparation of the European Councils, the big negotiations, co-ordination). Ideas include:

    (a)  Preparation of the European Council: the key to this is GAC involvement in the agenda and Conclusions process. One route to this is a GAC discussion about a month before the next European Council, to agree the agenda and set the framework and subject matter for the Conclusions. There might be follow-up in the session on the immediate eve of the Council, to go through the draft Conclusions, with a target of agreeing, in advance, most of the text. This could be undertaken either by a restricted meeting of the GAC (Ministers plus Perm Reps) or by a meeting of Perm Reps/Personal Representatives. But either way, this process would replace the Presidency pre-Council tour of capitals—which would in any case be impractical in an EU of 25 or more and is increasingly difficult at 15.

    (b)  The Big Negotiations: The GAC as currently constructed already plays a role on, for example, IGCs and enlargement—but could do more. This is not primarily an issue of structures, but of the time that Ministers in the GAC are able to devote to these negotiations. The technicality of some of the issues means that there is always going to be a role for Permanent and Personal Representatives. But the GAC might set itself the task of resolving the majority of the issues for decision before the dossier reaches the European Council. The other advantage of a bigger role for the GAC is transparency/accountability. It may be that future IGCs, like the next one, will be prepared by Conventions. It would not look right if much of the detail of subsequent IGC negotiations were conducted by officials behind closed doors.

    (c)  Co-ordination: As far as co-ordinating the work of other Councils is concerned, it is not clear that any of the Solana paper options would work. The question would be better addressed by the President of the European Council working with the chairs of the sectoral Councils (shared out between a Team of Member States) to drive through the European Council's strategic agenda. But this would require Treaty change and cannot be addressed until the IGC.

  13.  The GAC might also provide a model of best practice for improved working methods in all Councils (ideas like no table rounds, no presentations of Commission proposals, short lunches).


  Solana's questions:

    —  How much of the legislative process to open up?

    —  How in practical terms to organise public access?

    —  Should rules be adopted to ensure concise interventions?

  14.  The UK is in favour of greater transparency of Council proceedings.

  15.  We support complete openness when the Council is legislating. Contriving artificial stages (opening debate, explanations of vote) will encourage criticism that the real discussion is still behind closed doors (although in an EU of 25 plus, serious negotiation is likely in any case to take place more in informal meetings). The presentational benefits to the Union of increased transparency are high.

  16.  We should consider proposals on technical organisation of public access. In addition to televising all legislative proceedings, these might include: a camera point near the Council room for Ministers to brief on arrival/leaving; stand up points for broadcasters in front of the Council building; salles d'écoute and TV screens for public and press. We would support sensible measures to make interventions more concise, such as circulating position papers and setting time limits.


  Solana options (not requiring Treaty change):

    —  Improved co-operation between successive Presidencies.

    —  Appointment/election of chairmen of certain committees for longer than six months.

    —  Council Secretariat to chair some committees.

  17.  These proposals are sensible and could, in principle, act as an interim phase to more fundamental reform at the IGC. Co-operation between successive Presidencies is a good thing and already happens up to a point, but could be made more systematic through, for example, more multi-annual programming and allowing more tasks/chairing to be taken on by future Presidencies.

  Appointment/election of Chairs of some committees/use of the Council Secretariat could lead to the choice of "the best man for the job" and a single person to drive through specific projects lasting longer than six months.



  Solana options:

    —  Election of the President of the European Council for a longer-term.

    —  Appointment/Election of the Chairmen of all Councils for a longer-term.

      ? Team Presidencies of five or six States to chair all Councils and European Council.

  18.  The UK Foreign Secretary has already set out a broad framework on reform of the Presidency, which is partly picked up in the Solana ideas. This framework involves: a reduction in the number of Councils (say 10); separate appointment of chairmen of Councils for a longer period (say two and a half years); chairmen of Councils to act together as a steering group to follow through strategic direction given by the European Council.

  19.  We see merit in a model bringing together the options put forward by Solana and look forward to this discussion.

European Council

  20.  One idea put forward by the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schröder in their pre-Barcelona letter has not been picked up by Solana. This suggested that decisions referred to the European Council under Treaty basis subject to QMV should be decided by QMV. This would include most Single Market legislation, and most CAP decisions. Unanimity would still apply where it applies now ie CFSP and some Third Pillar issues. We hope that agreement can be sought on this at Seville.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

March 2002

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