Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law

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The Amsterdam Treaty, agreed by the political leaders on 17 June and signed on 2 October 1997, is the culmination of two full years of study and negotiation: nobody can say it has been thrown together or inadequately prepared.

Certain aspects of its predecessor, the Maastricht Treaty, were criticised on this score: its section on economic and monetary union, which had been meticulously prepared in advance (the Guigou Report and Delors Committee), was often contrasted with political union, which was directly negotiated with little groundwork, under the pressure of political developments in the East.

To a large extent the negotiation of the Amsterdam Treaty has proceeded systematically, as provided for at the Corfu Summit (June 1994): in the first half of 1995 each Institution was required to produce a detailed report on the working of the Treaty on European Union. This exercise produced remarkably similar conclusions by the Council, Parliament and the Commission about the Treaty signed in Maastricht: the Treaty was ambitious and innovative but the means were not equal to these ambitions, particularly in the intergovernmental provisions. Either because of structural weaknesses (for example the third pillar), or because it was not applied as it might have been (e.g. the second pillar), the Treaty left plenty of scope for improvement; the second half of 1995 was devoted to an in-depth analysis of the avenues to be explored and the options available, conducted by a Reflection Group chaired by the Spanish State Secretary for European Affairs at the time, Carlos Westendorp. The group's report, presented at the Madrid Summit (December 1995), provided a valuable basis for analysis, and indeed it did a very thorough job. Its membership was not restricted to a handful of "wise men"; each foreign ministry appointed a representative who was supposed to be independent. In practice the Group consisted largely of those people who would ultimately negotiate the new Treaty, plus two representatives of the European Parliament. As a result, the Group's report cast its net wide: all of the opinions voiced by one or other of its members are included, with no way of ranking them in order of priority or ruling out the most improbable; once the Italian presidency of the first half of 1996 had formally proposed the convening of an Intergovernmental Conference, the Commission adopted an opinion on the IGC (February 1996), marking a formal stage in the procedure for convening such a conference laid down in Article N of the Treaty. In it the Commission outlined its expectations of the conference, setting its sights on the upper range of what it considered realistic. It hoped thereby to give an ambitious cast to the negotiations, focusing on the principal themes that would come up: the citizen's Europe, Europe's identity on the international stage and the state of the institutions in a Europe scheduled to undergo significant enlargement.

It is hard to assess the importance of this formal statement of position by the Commission. A systematic comparison between its opinion of February 1996 and the final text of the Treaty reveals broad similarities in major areas: on employment, social policy, justice and home affairs, decision-making in foreign policy, the role of Parliament, the Union and its citizens the results more or less live up to the Commission's expectations. The same cannot be said of the extension of qualified majority voting in the Council, the number of Commissioners in an enlarged Union, or the reweighting of votes in the Council (see table in Annex); finally, the Turin Summit, which formally inaugurated the IGC, produced conclusions that, broadly speaking, were meant to serve as its terms of reference.


Since the Maastricht Treaty provided for a new Intergovernmental Conference to be convened in 1996 the objectives of such a conference changed: in a clear allusion to the need to review the structure of the intergovernmental pillars, Article B of the Maastricht Treaty called for the policies and forms of cooperation to be revised "with the aim of ensuring the effectiveness of the mechanisms and the institutions of the Community".

The Treaty also mentioned a number of specific areas for revision: the co-decision procedure, security and defence, energy, tourism and civil protection and the hierarchy of Community norms.

Various European Councils since Maastricht have added other points to the agenda: the number of Commissioners, the weighting of votes in the Council, measures to ensure the efficient working of the institutions and the institutional arrangements to allow for enlargement to include Cyprus, Malta and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Finally, Parliament, the Council and the Commission agreed to submit two other controversial questions to the Conference: the budget procedure, with special reference to the classification of expenditure, and the case of implementing measures delegated to the Commission by instruments adopted under the co-decision procedure (one of the examples of committee procedure).

By the time the Conference opened, therefore, it was clear that its purpose was both to remedy the inadequacies of the Maastricht Treaty and to ensure that the Union could continue to function with considerably more than 15 Member States.


Given these objectives, it is hardly surprising that the various delegations reacted differently. A number of elements stand out quite clearly at first glance, starting with the substance:

Once the principle of enlargement had been accepted, the date for concluding the Conference in Amsterdam in June was solemnly reaffirmed by all the summits from Turin onwards and was never called into question. However, some delegations considered that a satisfactory outcome was a necessary pre-condition for enlargement, while others were more concerned that the Conference should not upset an already wary public or jeopardise a delicate domestic political situation;

In this climate it was relatively easy throughout the Conference to identify a sort of mainstream that coalesced sooner or later around the main themes, backed by successive presidencies (Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands). The Commission's strategy was to try to make this mainstream set its sights as high as possible;

One of the difficulties of the Conference was that the traditional Franco-German partnership of which so much had been expected never really materialised. The German and French foreign ministers did hold regular meetings, but these apparently served only to confirm the lack of common ground (with the notable exceptions of security and defence and flexibility). This is hardly surprising: whenever European institutions are under discussion, Germany and France traditionally and naturally start from different perspectives, Germany taking a more federalist position than France. It had been equally difficult to find common ground on institutional matters during the Maastricht negotiations.

However, it would be over simplistic to put all of the difficulties of the Franco-German partnership down to philosophical differences; other factors certainly played a part. On the German side it was clear throughout the Conference that the negotiators were having great difficulty brokering the demands from the Länder and the other ministries, even when these seemed to be incompatible with Germany's fundamental positions. The French, for their part, seemed to have problems reconciling a firm commitment to certain issues with their wariness of institutional reforms. The result was sometimes paradoxical, as illustrated by the French position on justice and home affairs. It was puzzling to find France supporting ambitious goals, including the maximum extension of qualified majority voting, yet at the same time reluctant to place these questions squarely under Community control. For most other delegations, bringing these areas into the Community's sphere of influence was a corollary to qualified majority voting because of the democratic and judicial controls that this entails;

A major factor in the Amsterdam negotiations was obviously the British position prior to the general election of 1 May 1997. The United Kingdom was totally opposed to any institutional change of substance for what everyone understood to be essentially domestic policy reasons. Sympathy for this position waned considerably when the United Kingdom embarked on a policy of systematic vetoes in all Council discussions, in an added twist to the mad cow disease crisis. The inevitable result of this stonewalling was that most of the negotiations were conducted by the other 14 Member States, in the hope that the election would break the deadlock.

In fact, events moved very fast after the election: the United Kingdom maintained very firm positions on certain aspects of the debate (such as defence, justice and home affairs), but accepted, or actively encouraged, progress on others;

Finally, there was the special case of Denmark, which based its position on the interpretations of the Maastricht Treaty expounded in the conclusions to the Edinburgh Council in December 1992, between the two Danish referendums on ratification, which it regarded as politically inviolable. Denmark thus found itself on delicate ground as soon as the Conference turned to matters of defence, citizenship, foreign policy and justice and home affairs. On the latter, for example, Denmark indicated that it could envisage any reform except two: the transfer to the Community framework and qualified majority voting - the only two reforms which the vast majority of Member States regarded as of any relevance.

A few general remarks should also be made about the method:

The Maastricht Treaty was negotiated in the traditional way, on the basis of an original text which appeared early on in the negotiations (produced by the Luxembourg presidency) and was then the subject of numerous reservations, square brackets, counter-proposals and footnotes. The function of the negotiations was then to reduce the number of reservations and square brackets by textual compromises, to achieve a final uniform version that was acceptable to all.

This was not at all the case for the Amsterdam Treaty: most of the working documents were position papers which were not drafted as legal texts. Proposals from different delegations were also circulated. Meetings took the form of repeated discussions at which each delegation expressed its views and positions evolved gradually.

It was as if each delegation came to Brussels not so much to negotiate a text as to try to bring all the forces roughly into equilibrium and to judge whether the end product would be acceptable. At the same time, the two presidencies involved (the Irish then the Dutch) refrained from producing a text until the very last moment before each European Council (Dublin and Amsterdam) so that it might as nearly as possible approximate an acceptable equation and, more traditionally, so that it could not be examined too closely by the experts before being entrusted to the Heads of State and Government.

Although the Conference was formally in the hands of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and was prepared by their representatives, in practice the ministers played a predominantly supervisory role. They met infrequently, usually on the fringes of the General Affairs Councils, with their chaotic agenda. The result was that the bulk of the work was done by the Group of Representatives that met regularly for two days a week. Its composition was similar to that of the Reflection Group, on whose expertise it was thus able to draw, and its members included several deputy ministers or secretaries of state (France, Germany, Portugal and Sweden).

The role of the European Parliament was significant and far exceeded anything that had been seen in previous Intergovernmental Conferences. It had been represented as a full partner in the Reflection Group by Ms Guigou (F/Soc) and Mr Brok (D/PPE), and the question of its participation in the Conference was raised at the Turin Summit. Opposition to the formal participation of the European Parliament, led by the French and British, was strengthened by the fact that the Treaty makes no provision for such participation, specifying that such conferences, as their name implies, should be intergovernmental, allowing an exception only for the participation of the Commission.

However, the majority felt that it was politically neither possible nor desirable to exclude the European Parliament from the Conference and that its participation in the Reflection Group set a powerful precedent. A compromise was therefore worked out involving numerous exchanges of view between the Conference and Parliament, represented at ministerial sessions by its President (first Mr Hänsch, then Mr Gil-Robles) and at meetings of the Group of Representatives by Ms Guigou and Mr Brok. The result was that although Parliament was not formally a party to the Conference it was engaged in a bilateral dialogue with it which allowed it an important opportunity to air its views and, like the Commission, raise the aspirations of the Conference.

Finally, the question of the transparency of the Conference working methods was raised at the very start. In an effort to pre-empt any criticism on this score, it was agreed that the presidency would hold a press conference after each meeting, and each delegation would be free to comment on its own position. Each national parliament summoned its national participants at the Conference, and sometimes representatives of the Commission or the presidency, to attend hearings or present reports, according to its own procedures.


The Amsterdam Treaty is presented in the standard format used for each of the previous amendments to the Treaty of Rome: a series of amending articles following the sequence of the Treaty (preamble, articles, protocols, followed by declarations). While legally correct, this presentation is difficult to follow, so an approach by subject matter has been adopted here instead. This is also the way the Treaty was negotiated.

The main innovations of the Amsterdam Treaty may be presented under four principal headings:

freedom, security and justice

the Union and the citizen

common foreign and security policy

the Union's institutions.

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