The Single European Act
The European Communities were revitalised in the 1980s. With the support of the UK French and German governments under Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl and dynamic Commission President Jacques Delores, the EEC adopted a program to complete the internal market by 1992. This sought to remove all remaining barriers to trade within the EEC and open internal borders by the end of 1992.
The Single European Act adopted in 1986 was the first significant amendment to the European Treaties. In a challenge to ratification in the Irish courts, the High Court and later the Supreme Court confirmed that because it involved a further concession of national sovereignty to the EU institutions, a constitutional amendment was required to approve it. Each later significant amendment of the treaties has required a constitutional amendment in Ireland based on the same principle.
The Single European Act increased the areas in which qualified majority voting by the Council (i.e., the member states) would be binding. It was to apply to two-thirds of the estimated 300 measures necessary to complete the internal market.
The law-making role of the European Parliament was enhanced. It had a greater responsibility in respect of law-making (which remained mostly with the Council, i.e., the government ministers) and was given increased competence in other areas.
The meetings of the heads of government as the European Council, which was informally established in 1974 was formalised. This comprises of twice-yearly meetings of the heads of government (and the head of state, in the case of France) which consider significant issues and matters not resolved at the individual (ministerial) Council level.
The competence of the European Union to make laws was extended to cover the protection of the environment, regional policy, consumer protection, and social cohesion. The Treaty also saw the expansion of the European Union competence in respect of social and employment rights. The EU was permitted to adopt directives to improve health and safety in the working environment.
The adoption and completion of the single market by 1st of January 1993 was achieved. Most dramatically, it led to the dismantling of almost all border and customs controls between the member states. Coupled with the reduced security measures which took place as part of the peace process and ultimately the Belfast Agreement the land frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland became open and invisible.
Maastricht Treaty and the European Union
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany. Under the German Constitution, East Germany automatically became part of Germany and the European Communities. France exerted political pressure to strengthen political and monetary union to counterbalance German reunification.
Margaret Thatcher was initially opposed to German unification on the basis that it would undermine the stability of the international situation and endanger security. She expressed the concern that a united Germany would align itself with the Soviet Union and move away from NATO.
Following the radical measures to complete the internal, market economic and monetary union came to be regarded as the next stage of integration. The 1989 European Council convened an intergovernmental conference following the Dolors report on the next stage of European integration. At the initiative of the EU Parliament the agenda of the conference was enlarged beyond European monetary union. The council called for two parallel intergovernmental conferences which resulted ultimately in the Treaty on European Union signed in Maastricht in 1992. It became effective in 1993.
The Maastricht Treaty established three pillars of the European Union. The treaty renamed the European Economic Community, the European Atomic Energy Community and the European Coal and Steel Community, as the European Communities to reflect their expanded powers and competence beyond economic matters. This was the first pillar.
The second pillar was the common foreign and security policy. The third pillar was justice and home affairs. They remained as international agreements outside of the European Communities, but with strong links to it. The European Council the two intergovernmental policy areas of foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs and the European Communities were placed in a common legal structure, the European Union.
Economic and monetary union
The objectives of the Treaty on European Union included the establishment of a single currency within the framework of economic and monetary union. It introduced an agreed monetary policy. The time framework for the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union was set. It established the European System of Central Banks and the European Central Bank. The European Central Bank was to maintain and define monetary policy and to maintain price stability.
Participation in the final stage of monetary union required compliance with monetary and economic conditions. Ireland joined the system of European monetary union, meeting the required convergence criteria and agreeing to meet the requirements of the Stability and Growth Pact.
Denmark and the United Kingdom elected to remain outside European monetary union, retaining the Danish kroner and that pound sterling. On 1 January 1999, the exchange rates of the participating states’ currencies became permanently locked to each other and they technically cease to exist. Following a three-year transition period, euro notes, and coins were introduced on 1 January 2002.
Other Maastricht Reforms
As well as the framework for economic and monetary union, the treaty of Maastricht also provided for the establishment of citizenship of the EU. EU citizens would enjoy a number of political rights including the right to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal elections and European Parliamentary elections in other states. They were entitled to protection by the diplomatic authorities of any state.
The promotion of economic and social progress with high employment and sustainable development through the strengthening of economic and social cohesion and more formal protection of human rights became an express objective.
The principle of subsidiarity was introduced to counteract the criticism that the EU was centralising more powers to itself. Subsidiarity was designed as a break on the centralising tendency of the European Union. It is the principle that matters should be administered at the level closest to the citizen.
The Treaty broadened the Union’s objectives in the areas of industrial policy, energy, telecommunications, consumer protection, industrial policy, health, and education. The existing competences in environmental protection were extended. The role of the European Parliament in decision-making was further enhanced.
The powers of Parliament were significantly expanded. In particular, the expanded remit of the treaties was accompanied by the introduction of a new law-making procedure, co-decision. Going beyond cooperation in the Single European Act, co-decision requires most European union legislation to be approved by both the Council (representatives of the governments) and the European Parliament.
The other two pillars, the common foreign and security policy pillar and the justice and home affairs pillar were intergovernmental in nature with decisions made by committees comprising member states representatives. They were brought inside the European Union structure but were not part of the European Communities. The competences were based on intergovernmental cooperation rather than on the institutions of the European Union. Unanimity was required for the adoption of measures.
The dominant agents were the governments through the European Council and the ordinary council. Parliament’s rights were limited being a right of consultation and the right to make representations. The Commission had no direct involvement in the policy. The Court of Justice had no role.
The Justice and Home Affairs arrangements promoted further cooperation in criminal and civil justice matters, immigration, asylum, judicial cooperation, customs cooperation, and policing. In part, this was to promote the free movement of people.
A Growing Social Dimension
A criticism of the European Union is that it embodies free-market capitalism and takes an ideological position in its favour. This was the basis upon which left-leaning members of the Labour government campaigned for the UK to leave the EEC in 1975. It is still part of the left-wing Brexit critique so-called lexit.
The treaty changes since 1986 and especially in 1992 have gone some significant way in embodying social and economic rights those for workers within the EU treaties and competence. In the early 1990s, the proposals on embodying a social chapter proved very controversial in the United Kingdom. The Single European Act facilitated qualified majority voting in relation to health and safety measures. The social dimension was more clearly reflected in the Community Charter of fundamental social rights adopted by 11 of the 12 member states of the Strasberg summit in 1989.
Margaret Thatcher was opposed to the measures which appeared to roll back the UK employment law reforms of the 1980s. Ultimately the John Major government opted out of the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Eventually, the Labour government of Tony Blair opted in, five years later.
The charter drew on and developed the European Social Charter of 1961 adopted by the International Labour Organisation convention and aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights. The charter declared a range of freedoms in the area of work and employment including fair remuneration, enhanced working conditions, adequate social protection and social security benefits, free association and the right to join a trade union, access to vocational education, gender equality, information consultation and participation by workers, satisfactory health and safety conditions, protection of children, access to employment for persons with a disability and retirement and pension provision
Sweden Finland and Austria joined the European Union after completion of an accession process in 1995. Norway again negotiated membership, but as in 1972, it was rejected by referendum. Switzerland applied for membership in 1992 but withdrew it, after rejection in a referendum.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and end of communism in Eastern Europe opened the possibility that the states of Eastern Europe might join the European Union. At the same time, the EU was both widening and deepening in its scope. Both the Amsterdam and Nice treaties in 1997 and 2001 sought to modify the EU treaties to accommodate a doubling of membership.
The Treaty of Amsterdam was signed in October 1997 by the EU states and became effective on 1st May 1999. Most of the justice and home affairs competences in pillar three were transferred to the first pillar and transferred into European Community competences. Police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters remained in the third pillar, remaining as intergovernmental matter (requiring unanimity)
The Schengen Agreement had expanded to include most member states (but not Ireland and the UK) as well as several non-member states. The Schengen protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty contemplated that the Council would determine the legal basis for each of the provisions or decisions taken under the Schengen acquis, i.e. the Schengen body of laws. The default position is that they remain part of the third pillar.
The objectives of the European Union were further extended in the areas of economic and social progress, justice and security and EU citizenship.
There was an obligation placed on the EU in passing laws to assess them in the light of discrimination and environmental protection. The EU was granted powers in respect of entry into the EU, movement within the EU and coordination of employment. The Treaty embraced the stability pact and laid out the final time frame for the Economic and Monetary Union.
John Major’s government in the United Kingdom secured an opt-out from the protocol on the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty before it was signed in 1992.The Social Chapter on social policy, education training, and youth were embodied in the EU treaties having been finally accepted by the new 1997 Labour government in the United Kingdom.
The role of the European Parliament was greatly enhanced, and the co-decision procedure by which laws are made by both the Council (the ministers) and the Parliament was extended to a wider range of areas.
The Treaty of Nice
The Treaty of Nice was signed in 2001 and became effective on 1st February 2003. The Treaty reformed the institutions of the European Union to allow for the accession of 10 new member states, which ultimately took place in May 2004. It included a protocol on the enlargement of the European Union. This provided for the composition of the Council, European Parliament and the Commission.
The rules for voting in the EU Council were reformed providing for the qualified majority made up of a designated number of votes cast and a designated number of member states representing a sufficient proportion of the EU’s population.
Enhanced cooperation between some member states within the institutions of the EU was further facilitated. Enhanced cooperation was permissible as a last resort where the arrangements could not be provided for under the existing Treaties. A group of member states could trigger an enhanced cooperation procedure in certain areas. Members need not cooperate. All member states should be eligible to participate in enhanced cooperation. Only member states which participate in the particular cooperation arrangements, contribute towards the costs.
A Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was proclaimed but remained non-binding and outside the European Union. Greater freedom of information was provided for. EU citizens were given more extensive rights of access to EU documentation.
To the surprise of the Irish government, Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice in June 2001 in a referendum with a 34% turnout in which the major parties had failed to mount a strong campaign. Having obtained a declaration on Ireland’s policy of military neutrality from the European Council, Irish voters passed the Treaty of Nice in October 2002. Two further protections were embodied in the referendum one requiring the consent of the Dail for enhanced cooperation under the treaty and another preventing Ireland from joining an EU common defence policy. The treaty was approved with a 60% yes vote on a near 50% turnout.