Member states are battling with the European Commission over who speaks for the European Union in international negotiations about the environment.
The struggle turns on how to interpret the Lisbon treaty, which states that the Commission “shall ensure the Union’s external representation”. The Commission has insisted that the treaty gives it a bigger role on the world stage in environmental affairs. But the Council of Ministers’ legal service says that Lisbon changes nothing. As before, the Council agrees the mandate first and decides on who represents the EU.
This is just the latest inter-institutional skirmish, following disagreements over the creation of the EU’s new diplomatic service, and the inter-institutional accord relating to access to EU buildings.
According to member state diplomats, the row flared up as the Council and Commission began to prepare for United Nations talks on a globally binding treaty on mercury, which are due to start in June. The Commission presented the Council with a detailed negotiating line for the EU. But member states baulked at giving so many powers to the Commission. They were concerned about creating a precedent for other international talks, including those on climate change.
Member states were also unhappy with the details of the Commission proposal, notably a mandate to negotiate financial assistance for developing countries. “Member states said ‘that is our competence’,” said one diplomat.
Another diplomat said: “There is a feeling that if the Commission was to carry the negotiations it would not be able or as willing to share as much information as member states would like; there is mistrust on this matter.”
The Commission has threatened to withdraw its proposal on mercury. This is the Commission’s ‘nuclear option’ in internal rows, because it would bring ongoing processes to a halt.
Differences over the mercury talks have become so heated that individuals from the Commission and Council have been seen arguing over which of them would sit in a particular seat at one international meeting.
Deputy ambassadors will seek to unravel the problem at one of their regular meetings later this month, either on 21 or 28 April. The timing depends on Spain, which, as the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, is drawing up compromise proposals for the mercury meeting.
Inter-institutional bickering over who speaks for the EU is hardly new, but has been sharpened in recent months by uncertainties over interpreting the Lisbon treaty. The treaty “is a little blurry, you could say”, said a diplomat.
Earlier this year the Council and the Commission fell out over who should send a letter to the UN giving notice of the EU’s official climate targets. In the final compromise, both the Commission and the Spanish minister (as Council president) signed the letter.
But Andrew Duff, a UK Liberal MEP, said the treaty was perfectly comprehensible. “It is extremely clear that on such issues of climate policy there must be an EU policy and the Commission will propose that and initiate that and the Council will have to approve it.”
Duff concludes that the EU could have been better prepared for the Copenhagen climate conference, although he agreed that this would not necessarily have led to a different result. But having so many voices hardly helped, in his view: “The fact that we had six or seven prime ministers trying to speak for the EU was a complete disaster.”