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Treaty of Amsterdam

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The Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) was the third major amendment to the arrangements made under the Treaty of Rome (1957). It was largely an exercise in tying up the loose ends left over from the Maastricht Treaty (1992).  However, in the ways in which it changed the operation of the Council of the European Union, absorbed the Schengen Convention and increased the role of the EU in home affairs, it accelerated the co-ordination of the member states in areas beyond economics.

A reflection group was set up in 1995 to discuss which steps the EU should take after the Treaty of Maastricht.  The Maastricht Treaty had not covered all the issues raised during the debates of the 1980s – in particular, the Schengen Convention on open borders remained outside the main body of EU law while the Social Chapter that was meant to be included in the 1992 treaty had actually only been added as an extra protocol (treaty section not applying to all signatories) because of British opposition.

On the horizon, meanwhile, was the prospect of enlargement of the EU to include the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. Concerns also existed about the lack of democratic accountability within the EU – the so-called ‘democratic deficit’. These issues laid the groundwork for an Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) that began in Turin on 29 March 1996. However, progress on the IGC was slow and the Treaty of Amsterdam was only signed in 1997 after the change of government in Britain in May that year. The treaty came into force on 1 May 1999.

What did the Treaty of Amsterdam do?
The most symbolically important gesture of the Treaty of Amsterdam was the framework sketched out for the future accession of ten new member states. This projected an image of a Europe soon to be united across the old Iron Curtain. Yet it made many more immediate changes. It absorbed the Schengen Convention into EU law, creating open borders between 12 of the member states; expanded the role of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) by creating a High Representative to take overall responsibility for EU foreign affairs, and extended the powers of Europol, the European police agency, on the understanding that both these powers were controlled with the consent of every member state, not by majority vote.

The treaty also changed the way that some decisions were made in the EU by expanding the number of areas covered by Qualified Majority Voting (QMV), including on some foreign policy issues.  This was because, with over 20 members, it would be hard to pass any laws if every country had a veto on every topic. For this first time, the treaty also gave the Commission a say over justice and home affairs, which had previously been in the hands of the European Council.

To increase possible EU flexibility, the treaty created the idea of enhanced co-operation, a new mechanism to allow some members to co-operate more closely on areas outside the remit of the EU treaties which other member states did not want to take part in.  At the same time, however, it recognised the idea of constructive abstention – whereby a member state could opt out of security or foreign affairs without preventing other countries from going ahead.