The outcome of the European Council held on 22-23 June is fully in line with the position taken by the Assembly of European Regions (AER), and presented to the German Presidency in February this year. The AER called on EU Member States to set up an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) as soon as possible and to ensure that the European Parliament was properly represented in its work.
At its Brussels summit, the European Council decided that the concept of the European Constitution would be replaced by a new ‘Reform Treaty’. All references to the term ‘Constitution’ and to signs and symbols of the European Union, will be removed. The Reform Treaty will amend and not replace the old Treaties, and will consist of two parts. The first part will be the existing Treaty on European Union, otherwise known as the Maastricht Treaty, which basically corresponds to Parts I and IV of the Constitutional Treaty. The second part of the Reform Treaty will be a Treaty on the Functioning of the Union; this will be an amended version of the Treaty establishing the European Community (otherwise known as the Treaty of Rome), which is comparable to Part III of the Constitutional Treaty. The Intergovernmental Conference, which is due to begin its work in July, will have responsibility for agreeing the amendments to these two treaties, and will take into account most of the provisions agreed under the Constitutional Treaty. Both newly amended treaties have the same legal status and will enter into force at the same time.
The European Council agreed the framework for the negotiations that will take place in the intergovernmental conference, setting out which items of the Constitutional Treaty will be maintained, and which ones will be reformed or dropped. The Council agreed that new Reform Treaty will safeguard the key gains for the regions that the AER had been successful in securing in the Constitutional Treaty. These include the recognition of regional identities, the principle of territorial cohesion and the right of the Committee of the Regions to take the Commission to the European Court of Justice, if the principle of subsidiarity is deemed to have been breached. In some areas, these gains have even been extended further. For example, there will be a new article in the Reform Treaty that will give national parliaments eight weeks to raise objections to a draft law on the grounds that subsidiarity has been breached; this will be advantageous to regions which compose the second chambers of national parliaments, such as the German Länder.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights (Part II of the Constitutional Treaty) will be published as an annex to the treaties. It will have a cross-reference in the reformed Treaty on European Union, which will mean that it is legally binding. However, the United Kingdom has achieved a Protocol which basically allows it to opt out of the Charter. Poland also made a unilateral declaration that seeks to prevent the Charter being used to influence national legislation in public morality or family law.
The agreement on the Reform Treaty will allow the European Union to move forward with confidence and to reform its decision-making procedures. It will allow the EU to confidently address the challenges facing Europe and its regions, such as climate change. The new Treaty will in fact add the fight against climate change to the objectives of environmental policy. New possibilities are also opened up to bring forward action in areas such as energy security, civil protection and public health, and progress is made on common action on terrorism, asylum, migration and human trafficking.
The European Council agreed to retain the provisions on democratic participation, such as the citizens initiative, which allows citizens to request the EU to develop legislation. However, this alone will not be enough to engage citizens in the work of the European Union and to overcome the scepticism which currently surrounds the European project. It is important to ensure that the European Union takes the citizens with it in this reform process. Even if countries chose not to go ahead with the referenda that they had planned to hold on the Constitutional Treaty, there must be a proper flow of information to citizens about the Reform Treaty during the ratification period, which is expected to last until mid-2009, when the Treaty will enter into force. The Council gave the European Parliament an unprecedented 3 representatives in the Intergovernmental Conference, which will also help to ensure that the views of the citizens are not forgotten in the negotiations; the AER will endeavour to work closely with these Parliamentarians. It is imperative that citizens are not given the impression that their views no longer count, as this will only increase the distance between the European Union and the citizens. The AER is ready and willing to equip its member regions with the skills and the information necessary to ensure that their citizens are fully engaged in the debate on the future of Europe.
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