The Treaty of Nice

Treaty of Nice

The previous situation 

The Intergovernmental Conference faced the main challenge of setting the bases of an Union enlarged towards the East. Besides the twelve countries (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Eslovenia, in the first wave, and Bulgaria, Letonia, Latvia, Malta, Rumania and Slovakia, in the second phase) that had already started negotiations, Turkey should be added. The application of this euroasiatic and Muslim country was officially admitted in the Helsinki European Council, held in december 1999, although negotiations were put off until Ankara's government complied with the accession criteria, regarding respect of human rights and protection of minorities. Evidently, the Kurd problem was in EU negotiators' mind.

The Nice European Council was to be held in a not quite optimistic atmosphere and with this agenda: 

  • To prevent the future 27 or 28 members Union to get blocked, it was urgent to reduce dramatically the number of decisions taken by unanimity. The Commission proposed that qualified majority system became the general rule. 

  • As a result of the enlargement, to reduce the number of Commission members, 

  • To re-weight the vote of each country. The enlargement and the necessity of taking into account the demographic weight of the different countries, especially the Germany's, imposed this reform. 

  • The proclamation of the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union.

The proclamation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU

The preceding debate made foresee serious confrontation at the European summit:

  • Meanwhile Germany intended to re-weight its vote in the Council of the European Union, France, despite having 59 million inhabitants against Germany's 82 million, refused to break the power balance which the Union has been based on from its origins. 
    The Netherlands, 15 million inhabitants, tried to do the same as regards 10 million inhabitants Belgium. Brussels' government absolutely rejected to get less power than its northern neighbour. 

  • The necessary reduction of Commissioners implied, according to big countries (Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy and Spain), that the small countries would not have a regular Commissioner in the Commission. These countries flatly denied that alternative. 

  • The Commission aspired to reduce Council's competences. It was to finish the veto culture. National governments, represented in the Council declined to lose its veto on major affairs, such as tax system, immigration, cohesion, social security...  

The Treaty of Nice

Observers have, almost unanimously, affirmed that national interest outweighed Europe's during the arduous debate that took place at the Nice European Council. However, after a lot of give and take, Union's tradition held on: an agreement was reached. For the optimists, it is the only realistic way of go on progressing. For the pessimists, the European momentum is fading out.

Whatever it may be, these are the main points of the Treaty of Nice that ammends the previous treaties:

  • The bitter debate among big and small countries for the re-weighting of vote in the Council, represented in the Iberian context by the struggle between Portugal and Spain, rose the greater tensions. Finally, a new re-weighting of vote for the current and the future member States was reached. This new distribution of power will come into force on 1 January 2005 in the case of current members. The new system gives 29 votes to the Four Big Countries (Germany, France, United Kingdom and Italy). In spite of the demographic imbalance, parity between France and Germany is maintained. Spain got 27 votes, the same as Poland when joining the Union. The rest of the countries got progressively less votes up to Malta, whose weight will be three votes in the Council.

  • A complicate system of majorities and minorities was set up. It provides three different ways to block any decision of the Council:

    • When the Union have 27 members, the whole number of votes of the Council will be 345. The threshold for the qualified majority is set at 255 and a minority of 88 votes would veto any resolution. That means that three big and one small countries will be always able to impede any decision.

    • A simple majority of member States opposition will always prevent a decision from being passed by a qualified majority.

    • Finally, a demographic verification clause was adopted to give more power to more populated Germany. To get a qualified majority is necessary that a proposal be endorsed at least by 62% of the Union's population. It means that Germany needs the support of two big nations to veto whatever decision. The rest of the big countries need the participation of all the four big to exercise the veto.

  • The European Parliament will consist of 732 seats, instead of current 626. Germany will elect 99 MPs, the rest of the big countries 72, Spain and Poland 50. Seats in the Parliament have been used to make up for disparities in the re-weighting of votes in the Council.

  • In 2005, countries that currently have two commissioners (Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy and Europe) will have one. When the Union be composed by 27 members, a definitive number of commissioners will be unanimously decided. The number will be inferior to 27 and will be set up a a fair system of rotation that balance the composition of the Commission, taking into account the different demographic weight of the countries and the diverse geographic areas of our continent. On this subject, one of the main battlefields between big and small countries, a definitive solution was not reached, although the features of a future agreement were outlined.

  • Competences of the President of the European Commission were enhanced. Henceforth, he will be elected by qualified majority and his or her appointment will be ratified by the European Parliament.

  • The subjects on a decision by qualified majority can be adopted increase (about forty, most of them technical ones). However, governments' veto is maintained in subjects that affected them in a high degree, such as cohesion (Spain) , tax system (Britain), asylum and immigration (Germany) or free trade in cultural an audiovisual sphere (France).

  • The possibility of a reinforced cooperation among member States in fields related to further integration was set up. Reinforced cooperation must meet some conditions:

    • At least, eight countries must participate to start this sort of closer cooperation.

    • The following aspects are excluded of this possibility: Community policies, affairs related to Schengen, and anything else that affected the common market, defence and weapon industry affairs.


These are the main agreements reached in the Nice European Council. At Germany's request, the member States decided to summon a new conference in 2004, where they would try to go further than what was achieved in Nice. Very important issues, such as defining Union and member States' competences, deciding the legal status of the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union proclaimed in Nice, the role of national Parliaments in the European integration, or simplifying and clarifying the complicated legal muddle that the Treaties has become, will be the main objectives of this future summit.

On 26 February 2001, the European leaders, gathered again in the Côte d'Azur capital, proceed to sign the Treaty of Nice.

The French President, Jacques Chirac, and the incumbent president of the EU, the Swedish prime minister, Goran Persson, insisted in denying the claim against the alleged lack of European spirit in Nice. Mr. Chirac and Mr. Persson considered the Treaty as sufficient and realistic. It allows a historical step, the enlargement of the Union in 2002.

The German foreign minister, Joscka Fischer, has put a key matter up to discussion: the need of a genuine constitutional process for Europe. This will be the big issue for the next years. 

Ratification problems

The distance between the institutional move towards more union and integration and public opinion has appeared again, and, in this case, in a traditionally pro-Europe country.

Despite the major parties campaigning for the YES, Irish people said NO in the referendum held on the Treay of Nice in June 2001.

Irish against the Treaty of Nice

With a meagre poll, 53.87% of Irish people turned down the Treaty of Nice. Although this result questioned the future of the enlargement process, the Dublin government rushed to pledge a new negotiation and a second referendum that could lead to some opting-out clauses for Ireland.

The successful campaing of Greens, ONGs and other leftish groups against the Treaty, has evidenced again a growing scepticism of European citizenships. A mistrust that comes from the democratic deficit afflicting the European Union.