Introduction: Overview of the Intergovernmental Conference 2000 and the Treaty of Nice
[Chapter from Finn Laursen, ed. The Treaty of Nice, Nijhoff, 2006]
The Treaty of Nice was negotiated by an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), which ran through most of the year 2000. The European Council in Nice, France, concluded the negotiations in December 2000. This treaty introduced a number of institutional changes in the EU. The changes were related to future enlargements, which took membership to 25 in May 2004. The treaty determines the number of votes in a future EU-27. The 12 future members are 10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe (CEECs) as well as Cyprus and Malta. Turkey is also a candidate for membership but no future number of votes in the Council was assigned to Turkey in Nice.
Nice dealt with three related issues known as the Amsterdam 'leftovers' because the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 had failed to solved them (Laursen, 2002):
1. Re-weighting of votes in the Council
2. Increased use of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in the Council
3. Size and composition of the Commission.
It was the large Member States that demanded a re-weighting of votes, claiming that they were relatively underrepresented according to the old weighting, and that this would become a bigger issue in a much enlarged Union, since most new Member States are relatively small, with the main exception of Poland. A re-weighting of votes they hoped would increase the legitimacy of the system.
An increased use of QMV should improve the decision-making capacity of the Union. As long as unanimity is required, one single Member State can veto decisions. With a QMV it will take a small group of states – a so-called blocking minority – to block a decision. The size of this group depends on the definition of the QMV, which in Nice was closely linked to the re-weighting of votes.
The third question, the size and composition of the Commission, was also difficult because most Member States wish to be represented in the College of Commissioners. At the time, in EU-15, there were 20 Commissioners, two from each of the big five and one from each of the 10 smaller Member States. But was the Commission not already becoming too big to function as a collegial body and for leaving meaningful portfolios for all members?
It took a lot of 'horse-trading' in Nice in December 2000 to solve these issues. And in the end most of the Heads of State or Government meeting in Nice were rather unhappy about the outcome.
In many ways Nice was unique. Past IGCs had usually dealt with both substantive policy issues and some institutional issues. This time the agenda was largely limited to institutional issues. These were to include a fourth issue that was added during the conference, viz. 'closer' (or 'enhanced') cooperation or 'flexibility.' The Treaty of Amsterdam had introduced clauses allowing a group of Member States to go further in the integration process than the more hesitant and slow Member States, but the conditions for such 'closer cooperation' were rather strict (Stubb, 2002). The issue in the Nice negotiations was whether the conditions should be made less strict. This would make it easier for pro-integration members to move faster than integration-sceptical Member States and possibly form an avant garde.